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New Orleans Seminary, at anniversary, sees God’s provision

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–At New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is more about looking forward than looking back. More about God’s provision, less about painful memories. More about ministry, less about mourning.

Seminary professors and students have said as much with their actions. They have returned to campus to continue to train and be trained for ministry. They have returned to be witnesses in the city of New Orleans

“All throughout our seminary family there has been a confidence in God and commitment to the future and a real attitude of love and grace and mutual support,” NOBTS President Chuck Kelley said. “We are going to mark the anniversary of Katrina by having a worship and ministry day.”

Classes are cancelled Aug. 29. Beginning that morning, the Louisiana Baptist Convention will provide disaster relief training in Leavell Chapel. The seminary family will then gather for worship and remembrance followed by a meal together.

After lunch, students and faculty members will be sent out into the community to clean, cut grass, gut homes and prayerwalk.

“This will be more than a one-day effort, it will formally launch our seminary’s [post-Katrina] ministry in the community,” Kelley said.

On Aug. 16, the seminary marked yet another important milestone on the long road to recovery -– the start of fall classes. From the first post-Katrina meeting of seminary officials Sept. 1, just days after the storm, to the May 13 graduation service on the main campus, all the milestones were leading to this one.

While the official enrollment count for the fall semester will not be finalized for months, Kelley said he is “very encouraged” by the preliminary count.

“It looks like our new student count is close to last year’s new student count, which is a pleasant surprise,” he said. “We are very pleased.”

Once again the campus is buzzing with normal NOBTS activity. Early morning joggers fight their way through the humid air. Students, weary from late-night study of Greek and Hebrew, rush to their classes. Children gather around piñatas during birthday parties at Sunshine Park.

The pain of the past year is healing with time. Now when members of the seminary family talk about their Katrina experiences, they talk usually about God’s goodness. One of the things mentioned most is the kindness of Southern Baptist churches and individuals.

“The Katrina experience has been an absolutely brutal experience for our seminary and its families,” Kelley said. “No words will ever adequately describe the loss and the heartache, suffering and trials that our seminary family has been through. However, that is not what stands out to me.”

The way Southern Baptists moved quickly to meet the needs of the seminary family and needs throughout the hurricane zone is the real story of Katrina, Kelley said, noting, “It certainly has been [Southern Baptists’] finest hour in demonstrating the love and grace of God to the world.”

It was the generosity of Southern Baptists that kept the seminary from major financial crisis. Less than a month after the storm, the SBC Executive Committee — with unanimous support from SBC entity heads — voted to redirect beyond-the-budget 2004-05 Cooperative Program receipts for national causes in order to support disaster relief needs of the seminary, the three state conventions most affected by the hurricane and the North American Mission Board. This action resulted in a special gift of $6.2 million for NOBTS.

Gifts from individual Baptists and churches also played a key role in the school’s dramatic recovery. This sacrificial giving covered many expenses that insurance did not, such as vital financial relief for students, professors and staff members in need.

Southern Baptist volunteers came by the thousands to the seminary campus. They cleaned and painted seminary apartments and houses. They laid new sod throughout the campus. Their free labor saved the seminary millions of dollars in restoration costs.

Kelley lauded Southern Baptist volunteers for their work throughout the Gulf Coast region. Feeding units, home gutting crews, clean-up teams and chaplains fanned out in the hurricane zone sharing the love of Christ.

Because of their kindness following the storm, Kelley believes Southern Baptists have a unique opportunity to influence the city of New Orleans as it redevelops. Historically, Baptists have been a “small voice” in the city, he said, but SBC disaster relief teams changed that.

“We are sowing the seeds of the Gospel at every level of the New Orleans culture and in all of its neighborhoods,” Kelley said. “I think in five to 10 years there is going to be a great harvest in our churches. I think we have an incredible opportunity to be a witness for the Gospel.”

Kelley said he continues to be inspired by the work of the NOBTS faculty in the early days of the seminary’s recovery effort. While he worked to establish temporary offices in Decatur, Ga., days after the storm, NOBTS professors formulated a plan to continue the fall semester.

“I do not know of a more heroic performance by a theological faculty in the history of this nation,” Kelley said. “In the midst of having to deal with their own losses, they developed completely new ways to teach. They kept preparing their students for ministry during this whole experience.”

On Oct. 3, just over a month after the storm, the courses that started on the main campus continued via online discussion-based instruction –- the only way to meet the needs of a student body dispersed to 32 different states.

Kelley also lauded the commitment of NOBTS students. Despite tremendous loses of material possessions and irreplaceable family photographs and mementos, 85 percent of the students who started before Katrina continued their coursework.

During the darkest days of the Katrina experience, Kelley said he saw in the seminary family “the character and faith of Christians at its finest.”

“The thing that kept me going was the attitude of our seminary family,” he said. “When you see that kind of mission focus and that kind of underlying confidence in God’s grace … you cannot help but be inspired.”

Because of their character, Kelley said he expects great things from the “Katrina Class,” believing that they will be ready follow God anywhere.

“Our seminary family has really had to grapple with the priority of God’s call over everything else in our lives and with the fact that God’s call can lead you to difficult circumstances,” he said.

As the one-year anniversary approaches, Kelley said that the campus restoration is “incredibly near completion” and “far ahead of the rest of the city.” With more than 80 percent of the restoration work at NOBTS complete, campus housing restoration should be complete within a month, he reported.

While the seminary no longer is in survival mode, Kelley said he hopes Southern Baptists won’t forget about the seminary and the city. He believes it will take NOBTS two to three years to fully recover from the storm. The city, he said, is facing at least a 10-year journey of recovery. Volunteers will be needed for the foreseeable future.

Something Kelley does not see on campus these days is fear or despair. Instead he sees deepening faith and hope in God forged during the darkest days of the tragedy.

“We can have a very settled peace in our hearts because our Father’s grace is always sufficient,” Kelley said. “We have really experienced God’s wonderful grace.”