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Saints’ win stirs seminary’s heart for city

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–It was a Super Bowl parade 43 years in the making. The unbelievable had happened. The once-hapless, underdog Saints won the big game.

With confetti and a Mardi Gras flair, the Saints and their fans basked in a victory parade the evening of Feb. 9 that was epic even by New Orleans standards.

Described by many as a “sea of humanity,” an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 fans lined downtown streets to celebrate the 31-17 Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts two days earlier. Fans sang along as bands played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Spontaneous “Who Dat” cheers rang out over and over during the tribute to the team that spanned more than four hours.

People from all walks of life and all backgrounds — young and old alike — came together to enjoy the spectacle that featured floats from many of the most famous Mardi Gras “krewes.” In the crowd, people talked about the game, their favorite players and where they were when Tracy Porter intercepted Peyton Manning’s fourth quarter pass, sealing a Saints victory.

During the lean years, fans often wore brown paper bags over their heads at games in the Super Dome. But the team once known as “The Aints” are “Aints” no more.

The joyous scenes of the parade were in stark contrast to the photographs and videos of downtown New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Landmarks on the parade route like the Super Dome and the Convention Center were places of anguish and pain.

But on this day when the Saints were celebrated as kings for a day, the people of New Orleans also were cheering for the rebirth of their city. For those who asked, “Will New Orleans ever recover?” in the days following the storm, the city’s residents answered with a resounding “Yes.”

Since Katrina, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary has been an active partner in the city’s rebuilding process. Countless students, professors and staff members have wept and worked alongside those who lost everything in the storm. And they have shared their faith throughout the neighborhoods of New Orleans.

The seminary’s MissionLab program mobilized volunteers in tandem with Southern Baptist churches that sent thousands of their members to New Orleans to rebuild homes and assist local churches with ministry and evangelism. Many students, staff and faculty at NOBTS saw the city’s crisis as a chance to connect with the people of New Orleans in an incarnational way. Through the work of local churches, the seminary, the North American Mission Board and volunteer teams, Baptists have a stronger voice and a more visible presence in the city.

When NOBTS doctoral student Rhyne Putman and his wife Micah returned to New Orleans following Katrina, the couple decided they would spend more time outside the gates of New Orleans Seminary. They have since become students of the city, learning to understand its rich culture. Their love for the people of New Orleans keeps them in the world, but not of the world.

Tuesday’s celebration was an opportunity to identify with his wife’s coworkers, said Putman who, understandably, also was excited to see the Saints players.

“I went to the parade because I was excited about the Saints winning,” Putman said. “I really wanted to see Drew Brees. But it really was exciting to be a part of what the city is doing.”

Many have described the Saints’ season with its comebacks and overtime victories as “magical.” But, what seems like “magic” or even divine intervention came through hard work, discipline and character. Coach Sean Payton, now in his fourth season, emphasized those qualities to his players. And the team, marked by men of faith like Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, Mark Brunell, Heath Evans and Jon Stinchcomb, has responded. These and other players have become heroes on and off the field using their influence to benefit the city and bring glory to God.

Early in the season the Saints became the feel-good story of the National Football League after posting a 13-0 record. People in the sports world quickly made the connection between the team’s on-field success and off-field commitment to the city, as the players and coach often talked about the area’s ongoing recovery. On the NFL’s biggest stage before and after the game, Brees and Payton openly voiced their love for New Orleans and its people. Brees, Payton and other Saints player have given away thousands of dollars to assist the city.

Vanee Daure, a longtime staff member at NOBTS, could not attend Tuesday’s parade but had a chance to see the television coverage.

“Watching it on TV was great. It’s not that I didn’t want to be there, I just had a prior commitment,” Daure said. “[The celebration] meant a lot to me, because it made the city come together. I’ve been a Saints fan since they started.”

Daure sees other benefits in the Saints’ big win.

“I think [the win] is doing a lot for the economy of New Orleans. I think it is going to help the city recover,” she said. She hopes the spotlight on the city will help more displaced residents return and rebuild. Economic development leaders agree. They believe the national exposure of the Super Bowl will create a boon for business in New Orleans.

The Super Bowl win did not solve the problems that still plague the city — poverty, blight and crime. But while the recovery is not complete, the city has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina.

The celebration was a good reminder of why New Orleans Seminary was placed in the city, Putman said. With many people in the city and the region needing to hear of the hope found in Jesus Christ, Putman hopes to see the city of New Orleans come together for the glory of God.

“Ultimately, it’s not about football, it’s about something bigger than football,” Putman said. “I saw people getting excited about football players and the Vince Lombardi Trophy. What if people had that kind of vision for the Lord and the glory of God? What if we could somehow move the people of this city to that sense of excitement about things that really are significant?”
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.