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NOBTS marks return to New Orleans; SBC volunteers praised

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–After almost eight months away, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary closed its temporary administrative offices in Atlanta and returned home to New Orleans. The return marked yet another milestone on the long road back from Hurricane Katrina.

Approximately one-fourth of the offices and staff members had returned to New Orleans in January to assist with spring commuter classes on the main campus. But Internet, telephone services and electricity were still spotty at the time; mail deliveries had not resumed; and only a small number of apartments had been restored. Due to the lack of services and housing, the majority of the staff remained in Atlanta as the campus restoration continued.

On April 24, the relocated offices reopened on the main campus.

“It’s great to see so many of you back,” NOBTS President Chuck Kelley told the staff members during a meeting at Martin Chapel April 27. “It really does take all of us. What you have done this year is the stuff of legends.”

The week took on a festive mood as the close-knit staff was reunited. The campus life and dean of students offices, back since January, hosted a welcome back cookout for the staff April 24. Staff members also reconnected over lunch at the cafeteria each day.

Most of all, the staff quickly unpacked and got back to work, with graduation and summer workshops only a few weeks away.

Kelley called attention to the work of Southern Baptists in making the return possible.

“We need to thank Southern Baptists for their help,” Kelley reminded the staff. “It is the Cooperative Program that made this possible,” he said, referencing funding provided through the Southern Baptist channel of missions and ministry support.

Nearly 1,000 Southern Baptist volunteers had restored the apartments that staff members call home, Kelley said. Volunteers continue to prepare the seminary campus for full-scale resumption of campus operations in August.

Seminary trustee Mitch Hamilton, on campus for the board’s April 12 meeting, recalled the five heart-wrenching days last October when he helped faculty, staff members and students as they returned to campus to salvage personal belongings from their flooded homes and apartments.

“My memories are all in black and white … they are all gray with cloudy skies … [and everything] is covered with a gray sludge,” said Hamilton, pastor of Mississippi Avenue Baptist Church in Aurora, Colo.

Hamilton recalled that everywhere he turned he saw the broken pieces of homes and personal items, such as ruined family pictures and broken toys.

“Now, as they have cleaned and restored, instead of seeing disaster, you see hope,” Hamilton said. “It’s exciting. You do not get any sense that anyone is looking backwards…. There’s not any gloom, there’s not any despair.

“This has been an encouraging visit for me,” he continued.

“There is green grass, the grayness of the sludge is gone and the buildings are being rebuilt.”

Seminary contractor Mike Moskau, whose workers were assisted by the influx of Southern Baptist volunteers, said their help cannot be overstated: The volunteers have saved the seminary up to $3 million in labor costs.

While Moskau’s crews have gutted and reconstructed the flooded first floors of seminary housing and repaired roofs throughout campus, volunteers have cleaned and restored second- and third-floor apartments. The volunteers, including large groups of students from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, also have installed much of the new sod on campus.

The front block, which includes the seminary’s main academic buildings, has been open since January. New landscaping and grass have since been installed on the front block giving it a finished look. The first round of repairs to Leavell Chapel will be complete by spring graduation service on May 13.

Buildings on the second block of campus have been restored. Staff members and administrators are now living in DeMent, Crutcher and Lipsey apartments. In the next few weeks, new sod will be installed near these apartments as well.

The first 10 faculty homes located along Seminary Place along with Manor Apartments, Courtyard Apartments and Staff Village also are nearing completion. Sodding around these buildings is complete.

The remaining faculty homes and student apartments are on schedule to open at various times during the summer toward the entire campus being fully operational by August.

New construction on campus includes an addition to the Nelson L. Price Center for Urban Missions and two new faculty homes. The Price Center addition was scheduled to begin in September 2005. Hurricane Katrina put the project on hold. Construction on the addition begins this month.

Hamilton said the addition to the mission center tells him that the vision of the seminary is still centered on being a witness for Christ in the city of New Orleans. Since the Price Center opened in 2002, the building has served as a dorm and chapel for thousands of Southern Baptist volunteers who have come to New Orleans for its MissionLab urban outreach.

Hamilton believes the hurricane has opened many opportunities for the seminary family and MissionLab volunteers to reach out to the city with the Gospel and noted that his recent visit to campus left him with “great enthusiasm…. It’s a color picture.”

During the time seminary offices were split between Atlanta and New Orleans, Kelley’s 10th anniversary as NOBTS president, on March 1, was marked by the trustee and seminary foundation boards during their spring meetings on campus. But the other campus events to mark the date, planned long before the hurricane, had to be postponed.

Kelley gave each fulltime staff member a gift to mark the anniversary during the April 27 meeting on campus.

“This is just a small memento of this ride we’ve had together,” he said of the commemorative stone coasters. The coasters read: “New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary 1996-2006. Thanks for making a difference! Chuck and Rhonda Kelley.”

Kelley praised the work of the staff over the past 10 years in the seminary’s dramatic growth and expansion, and he acknowledged their hard work following the hurricane.

“Whatever has unfolded in these past 10 years could never have happen if it had not been for you and your hard work,” he said.

During his time as president, the seminary had grown from an enrollment of 1,879 to just under 4,000 prior to Hurricane Katrina. Under his direction, the NOBTS faculty completely redesigned the seminary curriculum. The seminary expanded its mission involvement in the city of New Orleans, in Asia, Russia and Cuba.

Kelley launched an ambitious capital campaign called “New Horizons” in 2000. The successful campaign helped the seminary transform the campus with new student housing and state-of-the art technology.

And, only days after the Hurricane Katrina inundated the campus with flood water, Kelley began working to provide relief for seminary families -– students, faculty and staff. He and his administrative team also developed an innovative plan to continue the fall 2005 semester largely via the Internet. In December, the seminary held a graduation service in Birmingham, Ala., and by January, commuter classes had returned to the main campus.