NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Most people would have given up. All the flights to New Orleans were full. Driven by compassion and a desire to share the Gospel, these Canadian students were determined to make it to the city.
“We actually flew to Houston because we couldn’t get flights to New Orleans,” group leader Greg Idell said.
Idell, Baptist Student Ministry director at the University of Alberta and at Grant MacEwan Community College and pastor of The Bridge church in Edmonton, led the group of seven students to New Orleans to help with the cleanup and restoration. The group joined the thousands of other Southern Baptists who have given their time to rebuild and refurbish the city.
The students were out of school for “reading week,” the Canadian equivalent of spring break. They tried to reserve tickets to New Orleans in December, but with limited flights available, they had to settle for Houston.
When they boarded the plane in Edmonton, Alberta, they thought their travel problems were over. However, their flight from Calgary was overbooked. After a tense wait, all of the group members made it on the flight.
The group finally arrived in Houston on Feb. 17 and spent a quick night on the outskirts of the city. The next morning they drove five hours to New Orleans in a rented van.
They arrived in New Orleans at noon Saturday, but they had little time to rest. Ready to get to work, they were tearing out moldy sheetrock and insulation two hours later at June Pittman’s home in New Orleans East.
Idell, an American serving in Canada with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, wanted to come to the Gulf Coast as soon as he heard the news about Hurricane Katrina. Before he had a chance share the idea with the BSM group, several students approached him with the same desire. Mission teams from the University of Mobile and Louisiana Tech University had come to Edmonton on short-term mission trips during the past few years, so the Canadian students had a connection with the region, and they wanted to return the help they had been given.
“Being an American myself, I heard of the news and had a desire to come,” Idell said. “I think it’s a good step for our students to be able to look beyond themselves and be willing to do something like this.”
The motivation for the students was simple -– Christian love compelled them to act. They also hoped to share the Gospel with the people of New Orleans.
“Our faith in Christ is supposed to be a tangible thing -– something that is practiced and lived,” said Kendra Thomas*, a senior at the University of Alberta. “To serve people who are in incredible need both in a physical way and a spiritual way is our calling as believers. That’s the reason I wanted to be here.”
Shawna Ritchie agreed. “Everyone here is so broken and that’s really when the Lord can reach out and get them,” she said.
After only two days in the city, the students were already experiencing joy in their Christian service.
“It is such an amazing experience to be here just to help out the people,” said Laura Cruikshank, a student at the community college. “I think it is going to be a life-changing experience for all of us.”
The events leading up to the trip already had proven to be life-changing for the students. As they sacrificed to finance their trip, they also saw God move on their behalf.
Without outside financial assistance, many of the students would not have been able to come. The entire group spent hours in prayer about all aspects of the trip planning, especially the funding. God provided. Funding came through.
The students received financial help from family and friends, the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists, the SBC’s North American Mission Board and The Bridge church. Cruikshank and another student at Grant MacEwan also received funding from their college.
“People have been really supportive and it’s just been incredible -– when there is a need, people will step up,” Cruikshank said.
Sunday, after the group worshiped at First Baptist Church, they toured the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward. The students walked through the neighborhood where floodwaters rushed through a breeched levee -– leaving only broken piles of wood, bricks and personal items.
The visit made a lasting impact on the students. Ritchie said she fears that some people will think that the greatest needs in New Orleans have passed, whereas Christians must know that the needs will last many years.
“There is so much need here and it will take years and years to put it back together,” she said. “We just went down to the Lower Ninth Ward today and … there is so much to do. I was surprised by how much is still left. It’s astounding the need down here.”
That afternoon, the group returned to the Pittman house in New Orleans East to continue their work and were able to spend some time with the homeowner and her daughter, Rayna. Pittman, who is a Christian, praised God for His protection during and after the storm.
The team only had one slight mishap during their stay -– Idell received a cut from a doorframe. Five hours and seven stitches later, he was on the mend. But even with the stitches and the travel issues, Idell said the trip to New Orleans was “one of the best trips I’ve had.”
*Name changed for security concerns.