NEW ORLEANS (BP)–From the moment I topped the levy, I could see that worship at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church would be extraordinary.
By 6:15 a.m. on Sunday, April 6, people were lining up outside the worship center doors to participate in the first service in two and a half years at the New Orleans church. Any pastor worth his salt would rejoice if his congregation started gathering over an hour before the service was scheduled to begin.
On this momentous day, both the 7:30 and 10:30 a.m. services were standing room only, as more than 4,000 people came home to worship. Various guests packed into the worship center with the members of the congregation, including an Anglo couple who were married 50 years ago at the church when the congregation was predominately white. Any pastor would start tapping his foot to express his joy for a packed house much less packed twice.
The “Franklinites,” the name senior pastor Fred Luter Jr. affectionately gives his congregation, have been a church in exile. After Hurricane Katrina and polluted floodwaters claimed their facilities in August 2005, the Franklinites scattered to worship in sister churches in places like Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Jackson and Mobile. Any pastor would be motivated to lift his hands in thanksgiving for sister churches’ help during such a time.
One can only imagine the pressures and the challenges of holding a congregation together in the various locations. No one bore the challenges any more faithfully than Fred and Elizabeth Luter. Luter spent his 20th-year anniversary with this exiled congregation. This is a congregation that he grew to more than 8,000 members. Not just any pastor, but this pastor was lifting his feet by faith to serve the Lord in the midst of trial.
Someone asked Luter if he was going to ask a guest to preach on the day of return. He retorted that he was called to pastor Franklin Avenue. This pastor was ready and prepared to express with his hands, feet, voice and heart to share the Word.
During his sermon, Luter alluded to the images in people’s minds of the devastation in New Orleans. He explained that many people still don’t fully understand the effects of Katrina on New Orleans citizens. “Who would have thought it would have taken two and a half years for us to return?” Luter said. “But now we are back!” But, he noted, “You don’t have to wear a bull’s eye on your chest to know that you will face trials in this life.” And, he preached, “everything we humans place our trust in dies.” Through the trials, Luter said, he held on to God’s unchanging hand. “FEMA failed, Corps of Engineers failed, the levies failed, and we lost neighborhoods, homes, churches and families because the levies failed. But we must put our faith and trust in the Lord.” And this pastor began to clap his hands to the glory of God.
“Our faith must be tested. Life is full of failures and we want to ask why. Anybody can preach, talk, write, pray or sing about trusting the Lord, but your faith must be tried by the fire,” Luter declared. “The just shall live by faith and that faith must be tested.” And this pastor began to shout.
Luter also explained that when you lose everything, God still demonstrates His favor on His child. Using NBA Hornets tickets from a benefactor as an analogy, Luter talked about a Friday night date with his wife in the arena’s prime seats. He used this to demonstrate how the Lord expressed favor to him. Then he preached about the Lord showing his favor to the Franklin Avenue congregation by their return to the house, to the Franklin Avenue worship center. And this pastor began to dance.
“My soul says, ‘Yes!’ for the Lord to turn the disaster into dancing,” Luter preached. With that, he began to express his joy with his feet, happy feet. “In 21 years, I’ve never danced in this pulpit until today. Let the church say, ‘Yes!'” And this pastor’s feet got happy.
“How beautiful upon the mountains,” the Scripture says, “are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” (Isaiah 52:7 KJV).
John L. Yeats is director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention and recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.