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Seminarians tackle New Orleans’ hurts

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Dirt and sweat shrouded his neon green T-shirt and his weathered straw cowboy hat was bent and battered and soaked from the hard summer rain.

But Dennis Phelps nevertheless had a story to tell of the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Phelps and a team tackled a house that had been untouched since the worst natural disaster in American history.

His team of students and faculty from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary gutted the beaten house down to the studs. They bowed their backs and cleared it of the mess Katrina had left behind. Grass 10 to 12 feet high was cut. All in three and a half hours.

“The best we could surmise, an older person and a young child lived there,” Phelps said. “We don’t know if it was a grandmother and grandchild who lived there or what.”

For all the team knew, the homeowner was known only to God. Still, while there was no smile to see, no embrace to feel, no heart to touch, the work was worthwhile.

“I pray we do this every year,” Phelps said. “We enjoyed the fellowship. We worked hard. And we did it for the sake of Jesus.”

Some 350 NOBTS students and faculty heard countless stories of hurt and hope as they worked across the still-suffering city on Aug. 29. They hammered. They wired. They painted, planted flowers and picked up trash. And they shared the story of Christ and His redeeming love. Hope and faith were sown among the ruins. And lives were changed. At least 12 people accepted Christ as a result of the outreach.

Flexibility was the order of the day for the NOBTS work crews. Teams wrestled with heat, humidity, even downpours in isolated areas of the Crescent City.

Seminary President Chuck Kelley touched on the subject during a brief prayer gathering before the teams headed out.

“You never know what God is going to do,” he said. “I want to encourage you as we prepare for this day to be flexible. Flexibility will be our favorite word.”

“Remember that your very demeanor and attitude really are a very powerful form of witness as is your presence,” Kelley said. “You may also have that opportunity to speak the good word of Jesus. When you do, don’t hesitate to say something about Him if God opens that door.

“It would be great if we had some people give their lives to Christ this day and become born again,” Kelley said.

Many of the teams faced flexibility issues early in the day. At least three crews had to shift their focus as soon as they arrived at their scheduled site.

Craig Price, the seminary’s dean of students, and a work team had intended to mow a yard in the Ponchartrain Park neighborhood. But they found a finely manicured lawn at their scheduled destination.

“This was our divine appointment,” said Craig Price, pointing to a house across the street from their original destination.

Across the street Price saw a man with a dejected look. A severely damaged house and a FEMA trailer occupied his weed-filled yard. Price approached and offered to help. The man welcomed the team’s assistance. Before long the group was clearing, mowing and weeding the yard. Because of attentiveness and hard work, another NOBTS team focusing on evangelism was able to share the Gospel with the homeowner.

Wednesday was the second year for the seminary’s Katrina work day. Teams worked in schools and churches, on playgrounds and in lives. Like the rest of New Orleans, the seminary campus suffered flooding and loss.

Doctoral student Stephen Chang of Fremont, Calif., who lost all his possessions when his first-floor seminary apartment was inundated by 12 feet of Katrina’s floodwaters, was part of a team that worked at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School.

“This is one of the best ways to show the love of Jesus Christ,” Chang said. “We all experienced Katrina. Because of that, we can connect to people who were hurt by Katrina. We know better than outsiders who weren’t here and didn’t experience the storm.”

Graduate student Shin Deok Ra of Osan City, South Korea, was in Korea, but his brother and sister were students at the seminary when the storm struck.

“At our church, we prayed every Sunday for three months for the people hit by Katrina,” Ra recounted. “Most of the Korean Christians know about New Orleans Seminary and understood the problem.”

As the seminarians worked at Ben Franklin, students at the elementary school laughed on the playground, ate in the lunchroom and learned in the classroom. But school staff members said the seminary team’s work wasn’t lost on the youngsters.

“The kids are excited,” said kindergarten teacher Andrew Amedee, a Southern Baptist pastor at Bienville Baptist Church. “They’ve heard their parents talk about how they can’t get any help, except through the church. Now the kids can see people reach out and help them.”

Amedee’s church remains one of the many struggling after Katrina. Four members of his congregation perished in the storm.

“We didn’t have electricity or air until two weeks ago,” Amedee said. “The temperature inside the church would get up to 130 degrees, but still people came.”

Along with Katrina’s floodwaters, vandals have plagued the church’s efforts to rebuild.

“The vandals got the first floor, and the flood got the rest,” Amedee said. “But I’ve told our people, if we have faith, God will lift us up. That’s what has kept us going.”

Ben Franklin principal Charlotte Matthew said the seminary’s presence in the school was a morale boost.

“The outpouring of love from the community and groups that come to help has an impact on the lives of the children and the staff, because they see that people care enough to help post-Katrina,” she said. “Even two years later, seeing people willing to come out to work to restore us to pre-Katrina conditions is just fabulous.”

NOBTS crews at Ben Franklin cobbled together desks, moved furniture, hauled textbooks to class and shredded old documents. The elementary school has 350 students in a school built for less than 200. And many in the student body still live in trailers or are separated from their families. Still, the school perseveres.

At school ceremonies marking the second anniversary, Matthew said, the word of the day was “resilient.” Last year, there were just 176 students at Ben Franklin.

“Our children are resilient. Our staff is resilient. We’re not going to let a storm stop us from moving ahead,” Matthew said.

As for the presence of the seminary crew, she said it packs more punch because the teams are from New Orleans.

“It warms your heart,” the principal said. “To have people from your own community to step up to the plate and help, there’s no one who sees more about what’s really going on in New Orleans than the people who live here. So to have people to come from the seminary to give us assistance really means a lot, because they know exactly the kinds of places that our children are going home to, and they know the city. They know the things you don’t see on the news. We’re pretty much on the back burner now because of other tragedies.”

Also during the day, Hannah Sterling, 25, of Maryville, Tenn., recounted the story of a woman exiled to Baton Rouge by Katrina. Her New Orleans house had been untouched by the storm, but the stench of two abandoned refrigerators filled the air and the grass had become overgrown.

With the prospect of help finally arriving, the woman drove early to her tattered home to unlock it for the workers. At the sight of the students in their green neon shirts, no words -– only tears -– flowed. Hopeful for the first time in two years, she hugged each team member.

“She said, ‘You don’t even know what I’ve been through. You don’t understand. This is how I know that God is real, because you are here,'” Sterling said.

The seminary’s second post-Katrina community effort went “above and beyond” expectations, said Ken Taylor, a seminary professor who spearheaded the effort. On a Wednesday when there were few classes scheduled, still the turnout was strong.

“It was just great to see all that God did,” Taylor said. “The students were excited and passionate about their work and it exceeded my expectations.”

While many ministered to the physical and others to the spiritual, all of it had value, said Josh Harmon of Arkansas Baptist Builders, who have worked fulltime since Katrina to help restore New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood.

“We’re all part of the body,” Harmon said. “No matter what we’re doing, we’re still advancing the Kingdom. People may say they didn’t lead anybody to Christ, but by what they’re doing, they’re advancing the Kingdom. When someone works, they’re giving a foothold to those who will evangelize.”

NOBTS professor Preston Nix reflected at the end of the day, “… You can lose everything -– you can lose it all, because some of us did. But you know what, there is one thing that no one can take away from you and that’s Jesus. That’s why we are out there, to help people know Jesus … to minister in His name and reach out and touch our city. That’s ultimately what everyone needs.”
Paul F. South is a writer at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. With reporting by Gary D. Myers & Katie Nalls, also of New Orleans Seminary.

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  • Paul F. South