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Post-Katrina Christian unity celebrated in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It was billed a “prayer and praise service” to God and for those who helped New Orleans in its first year of recovery from Hurricane Katrina, but racial reconciliation became the unstated theme of an Aug. 29 multi-denominational remembrance service at First Baptist Church in New Orleans.

People from a biblical “every tribe and nation” not only prayed but also spoke of the unity they had experienced since Katrina.

“It took a storm but God brought us together,” said Bishop J.D. Wiley, pastor of New Orleans’ Life Center Cathedral, in closing remarks echoing words repeated throughout the evening that had prompted the crowd of about 1,300 people to cheer their approval.

The first time of extended applause came early in the service when David Crosby, First Baptist’s pastor, said the city of faith rose up together even as they crumpled to their knees over the devastation wrought by Katrina.

“I have never felt more [racial] togetherness with my brothers and sisters than I have this year,” Crosby said in his welcome before the combined choirs of First Baptist and two other sister Baptist churches, Franklin Avenue and Celebration, led the congregation in “We Are United.”

“We’re not back yet, but we’ve finished the first quarter,” Joe McKeever, director of missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, said.

New Orleans is still in tatters. While some parts of the city seem to be recovering, others obviously have not been touched yet.

The service was one of several events at the one-year mark after Katrina. President George W. Bush attended an ecumenical service of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and others earlier in the day, then he toured Baptist Crossroads, the largest residential construction project in the city. Envisioned by Crosby and undertaken in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, Baptist Crossroads recently presented keys to 30 new homeowner families.

“I’m here to tell you the body of Christ rose to the occasion,” Congressman Bobby Jindal said. More than 8,000 volunteers have helped with Baptist Crossroads. Countless more -– tens of thousands more -– helped across the city in an evolution of chainsaw, mud-out, gutting and now rebuilding of homes.

Note: Volunteers continue to be needed. For information on getting involved, contact Operation NOAH (New Orleans Area Hope) Rebuild at 504-523-5761 or any New Orleans-area Southern Baptist church.

“God stirred the hearts of people across the country,” and Frank Bailey, pastor of Victory Fellowship and one of the speakers at the Katrina remembrance service. “It would have been impossible for us, in our weakened state, to help the people here. Thank You, Lord. Our city has seen the love of God displayed by the young people and the old people…. I think what has happened through Katrina has happened for the furtherance of the Gospel.”

Bailey called to the platform representatives of the groups that had a major presence in the city’s relief and recovery efforts: the Salvation Army, Samaritan’s Purse, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Operation Blessing, Habitat for Humanity and others.

“There are so many who have helped,” Bailey said. “It’s humbling to need help…. Christ has been preached in this city every day this last year. The city of New Orleans is open to the Gospel today as never before. Thank you to all who have helped.”

McKeever opened the remembrance service in prayer. “We’ve come to pray, and pray we shall,” he said. “Thank You for commissioning us, Lord, [but] the task is more than we can do.” Dozens interrupted with “Yes, Lord.”

“Satan has held this city long enough,” McKeever continued. “We pray You will take it back.”

Dennis Watson, pastor of Celebration Church, was the first of four people to lead in an extended time of prayer.

“We don’t understand all that’s gone on,” Watson prayer, “but we confess our trust in You. We’ve come to tell You we trust You.”

Michael Green, pastor of Faith Church, thanked God for sending those who responded first. “Those people who asked, ‘Where was God?’ — He was there all the time, in the hearts and hands and feet of those who came to help.”

New Orleans needs to be rebuilt “from the inside out,” Kathy Radke, a chaplain and associate pastor at God’s House Westbank Cathedral, told the crowd. “There are parts of New Orleans that have been devastated for generations.”

She asked for a show of hands of those whose homes and/or businesses had been destroyed by Katrina, and dozens responded. She invited people to lay hands on those near them who had lost so much, and she led in a time of prayer in their behalf.

Cornelius Tilton, pastor of Irish Channel Christian Fellowship, reminded the crowd of nearly 50/50 whites and blacks, with a spattering of Hispanics and Asians, that “God brought us together…. We ought to act down here like we’re going to look in heaven. How grateful we are to serve a God who even when we don’t do it like we’re supposed to, He gives us a second chance…. We’re now one church, meeting in different places around the city.

“Spring from our hearts this night revival, Lord,” Tilton prayed. “Lord, send a revival and let it begin in me.”

All this, plus a Katrina devastation slide show, preceded keynote speaker Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue, where more than 6,000 people had attended services each week prior to Katrina. With the church building soaked in salt water for more than two weeks and now gutted to its core studs, fewer than half that many members now meet in three cities. The rest have scattered nationwide.

Luter, who has spoken of Job as one of the books of the Bible that has proven meaningful to him amid the devastation Katrina wrought on his 19 years of ministry at Franklin Avenue, preached from Job 23:8, 10-11.

Until the hurricane, there was nothing special about August, Luter said. Every other month of the year has at least one special day, from New Year’s Day to Christmas Day, but that couldn’t be said for August until Katrina.

“Every now and then we need to be tried in the fire to see if we can pass the test,” Luter said. “Katrina will forever remind us of a time our faith was tested.”

It was tested for faith, trust, loyalty and allegiance, the pastor said.

Looking at Job to see how the Old Testament character dealt with the tests God allowed, Luter noted that:

— “God pre-approves every test … [and] was not surprised by what happened to Job….

— “God prepares us for every test.” Luter told the audience that “God told me to tell you tonight if you’ve been praying, you will pass the test.”

— “God preserves us through every test…. He kept us…. You passed the test. You made it! … And just like Job, your latter days will be better than your former days.

“I’ve got the feeling everything is going to be alright,” Luter said. “We’re gonna make it because our faith is going to get us through!” The congregation exploded in extended applause.