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NOAH volunteers make their mark


NEW ORLEANS (BP)–On the third floor of the World Trade Center in downtown New Orleans, more than 16,000 Southern Baptists have gathered for meals, devotions and fellowship during the last 17 months. Each has left their mark on the city in so many ways.

On a recent Friday night, I stood in the center of what has been Operation Noah Rebuild’s Volunteer Village cafeteria. With the rush of summer nearly over, only 65 or so volunteers were staying there that night — down from more than 400 on most summer nights and spring break weeks.

I paused and thought, “If only these walls could talk,” as I read encouraging graffiti left by volunteers that offered greetings and well wishes. They tell a story that vividly illustrates the missional nature of Southern Baptists.

It’s estimated that Baptists from more than 34 states have left their mark on the Volunteer Village cafeteria walls. From as far away as Alaska, volunteers have journeyed to New Orleans to help rebuild homes damaged by the ravaging flood waters of Lake Pontchartrain that swept through much of the city after levies broke. The legacy of Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark on this city, but so have the volunteers.

As I studied messages left on the wall, a wave of thankfulness swept over me. When Operation Noah Rebuild was first conceived, there were no promises of any volunteer response. But mission volunteers from across the nation answered the call to accomplish a task much larger than any one person. Realizing that the most familiar experience each volunteer had was eating and visiting in that cafeteria, it occurred to me that this was the common ground of a major cooperative mission effort.

Across the Gulf Coast, more than 175,000 Southern Baptists have volunteered since Katrina’s landfall two years ago, USA Today estimated in a July 19 article. The second closest group is a para-church ministry with 71,412 volunteers. The second largest denominational response has mobilized 56,656 volunteers.


The most lasting mark left by these volunteers hasn’t been on the walls of the Volunteer Village cafeteria. The greatest mark has been in the homes and the lives of hurricane survivors.

During March I was in a home being rebuilt by volunteers from Foothills Baptist Church in Issaquah, Wash., a Seattle suburb. The homeowners were senior adults who had evacuated to Los Angeles. Their daughter, Ranata Barrier, was actively working with Noah leadership and volunteers to restore the home. As the Northwest Baptist volunteers worked away, she asked that they stop because she had something to say. Ranata shared about her parents’ plight and how badly they wanted to return home. Then with tears in her eyes she thanked the volunteers.

Thyra Ferguson has also expressed thanks to Noah volunteers. She remembers each of them, including some of the more than 150 volunteers from the Georgia African-American fellowship that worked on her home. She has each of their names, and she writes them regularly.

As much as we try, there is no way to measure the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the depth of hurt it created across the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf coasts. Residents recount the fear they or their children feel now when it starts to rain and the wind howls. No one wants to experience the ravages of something like Katrina again.

Despite volunteer counts in literally the tens of thousands, it’s virtually impossible to measure the mark made in the recovery effort by their work. We know that relational bridges have been built, and thousands have made professions of faith. That’s a mark we will have to wait to see in heaven.

The walls of the Volunteer Village cafeteria will soon be covered with fresh paint, but the memories will remain of the goodness of Southern Baptists and the cooperative spirit that makes us strong.

Not even fresh paint can contain the story of these walls.
Jim Burton is senior director for partnership mobilization for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.