NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Nearly 700 volunteers from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by putting “hands and feet to the Gospel” at 28 sites throughout New Orleans Aug. 29.
Subjects like pastoral ministry, missions and evangelism were not taught in the classroom on this day, but in the city. Real-world training took place in hard-hit areas like the Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish and the seminary’s own Gentilly neighborhood. The volunteers’ work was a message of love, hope and God’s grace -– a hug for the hurting city.
Groups gutted homes, chopped waist-high weeds, worked on churches and prayed. Roving counseling and evangelism teams also walked through neighborhoods offering hope, encouragement and a Gospel witness not only in English but in Spanish as well. Most of all, the groups illustrated the love of God in word and in deed.
Teams went out in groups of 10-15 people wearing bright yellow-green shirts imprinted with the day’s theme -– “NOBTS: Rebuilding New Orleans in Jesus’ Name.”
NOBTS urban missions professor Ken Taylor, co-organizer of the service project, said he hopes the day will help the seminary community see how widespread the hurricane devastation is.
“Hopefully, [seminary] people will develop a passion for getting out and ministering and seeing what a difference it makes,” Taylor said.
“Getting the students out and letting them get the flavor of the needs in the city and what God is doing was one of our main goals,” he said. “Students just got in there and worked and realized that they were doing it for the Lord. I was amazed and pleased with the student participation.”
The day began with disaster relief training in the seminary’s Leavell Chapel. At 1 p.m., after a meal provided by a Louisiana disaster relief feeding unit, the volunteers moved out into the city.
One seminary group started the day early working at Habitat for Humanity’s Baptist Crossroads site in the Upper Ninth Ward. The group experienced the unique treat of meeting and praying with President George W. Bush.
“Our Katrina Ministry Day was a great opportunity for our seminary family to be a living illustration of the love of God,” said NOBTS President Chuck Kelley, who visited many of the worksites during the day. “With so many New Orleans neighborhoods still in ruins, you understand why it is difficult for many to believe in the love of God. We intend to be evidence to the contrary. God does love the people of New Orleans, and we are here to demonstrate the reality of that love in tangible ways.
“After 31 years of living, witnessing and going to church in this city, it is becoming increasingly obvious that something fundamental has changed,” Kelley noted. “A window of opportunity has opened, and God is about to do a great and deep work.”
In the Gentilly community, 15 students began removing flooded items from Ed Prickett’s home near the seminary. The house has sat untouched during the year since the storm. Students removed all of Prickett’s belongs and placed them on the curb.
Prickett, now in his 70s, attended NOBTS from 1955-58 and moved into the home on Piety Drive in 1963. Prickett and his late wife Willene were members of Gentilly Baptist Church where he was a deacon and she was active in the Woman’s Missionary Union.
In the home, students encountered a two- to three-foot layer of mush consisting of newspapers, books and other items that had melted together. They also encountered rats.
Prickett watched as the students removed debris from the home. He watched closely for items to salvage. Very few were found, but he endured the challenging day with grace and dignity. His actions served as a testimony of faith for the student group.
The group was thrilled to see NOBTS Provost Steve Lemke and his evangelism team arrive with cold water to distribute as they walked up and down Piety Drive sharing the Gospel.
“You are working in this home, but that gives us the opportunity to go next door and share and witness,” Lemke said to encourage the students. “We appreciate both -– the spiritual and the physical work. Both are indispensable; you can’t have one without the other.
“The guys are sharing with someone right now because the work being done in this home gives us the chance to say, ‘Hey, we’re from the seminary; we’re working over here and wanted to give you this New Testament,’” Lemke continued. “From there, we can begin a conversation with that person and hopefully share the Gospel.”
Through the witness of the evangelism team, a workman in one of the neighboring homes gave his life to Christ.
Just blocks away on another Gentilly street, dozens of students from the seminary’s Korean Student Fellowship gutted another home. Many of the Korean students lost their belongings in the campus flood and were happy to help others overcome the loss.
“We thank New Orleans Seminary for allowing us to help,” one Korean student told Taylor.
Near the University of New Orleans and the site of the London Canal levee breach, an NOBTS group emptied another home of its contents. This home, also untouched since the storm, took in more than 10 feet of water in the flood.
Jeff Wicker, one of the first to arrive at the site, was amazed to find a Times-Picayune newspaper that had been delivered one year ago -– Aug. 29, 2005. The paper, tightly wrapped in plastic, was soggy but legible. Wicker described the find as ironic and surreal.
During breaks from their work, the group had a chance to read the headlines, but they spent most of the afternoon moving loads of debris from the home by baskets and wheelbarrows. In four hours’ time, the group of about 20 was able to empty the home for a gutting crew that will follow later.
In storm-ravaged St. Bernard Parish, where every structure was flooded, teams prayer walked and cleaned out homes. The area was inundated by up to 20 feet of storm surge during the storm.
In Chalmette, St. Bernard’s largest town, a seminary team faced the grim task of clearing out a home slated for demolition. Before homes can be bulldozed, all furniture and appliances must be removed.
The students were impressed with the way homeowner Paul Hussey approached the difficult job. Hussey, a Christian himself, said he dealt with the pain of his losses early and is now ready to get the job done.
Even though the Uptown area was virtually untouched by the hurricane and subsequent flooding, students also went there to minister. Along Prytania and Magazine streets, NOBTS students prayer walked, gave out bottled water and spoke to and prayed with residents. They also gave out school supplies to children in the area.
Throughout the city, members of the seminary community listened to the Katrina stories and prayed with residents. In the tough areas like the Ninth Ward, many residents are hopeful about the city’s recovery, even on a hard day like the first anniversary of the storm.
“I have a lot of mixed emotions,” Ninth Ward homeowner Carolyn Nogis said about the day. “It’s kind of hard, but I’m getting through it. I’m glad we made it, now we’re trying to do the recovery. I’m grateful we’re here and I’ll be grateful when everyone can come back in their homes.”
A handwritten sign in the front of Nogis’ home reads: “FEMA. Got Trailers? I Need One.” Her family has waited three weeks for an electric meter. Until the meter is placed, their restoration work is at a standstill and they cannot get a FEMA trailer.
When asked how hopeful she is for recovery, Nogis said it depends on the day.
“There are days that I am very hopeful. There are days that I think it’s not going to happen,” she said. “I’m praying and asking God to get us back, to make us whole again. I’ve got to be hopeful, I can’t be nothing else. Look, we’ve already been down, there’s nowhere else to go but up.”
For many students, the day had the profound effect Taylor and the other organizers desired: Many expressed a new passion and understanding for city residents.
One seminarian, Clint Crawford, confessed he had been a little selfish following the storm. While he was evacuated to Texas, Crawford said he did not think about the plight of the people of New Orleans. He said the day helped him understand the needs of the city in a new way.
On Aug. 29, the city was the classroom where theory was put into practice. Perhaps the words of NOBTS professor Gerald Stevens best summed up the day: “We just hope our students will catch a vision for putting hands and feet to the Gospel.”
With reporting by Astasha Baker, Michael McCormack and Katie Nalls.