Sunlight and shade along tree-lined Seminary Place, along with red brick and green grass, make it seem as if nothing was ever out of place on the main artery through New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Faculty members tend to their yards. Down the road, the children of students slide and swing on the playground.
Doctoral student Billy Puckett and other members of the seminary family know better. Puckett, 32, of Orange, Texas, returned to campus after Hurricane Katrina hit to find a lifeless campus of downed trees, mud, muck, and mold.
"It was as if you were in a black-and-white world," Puckett said. "It was colorless. There was gray mud and dirt all over campus. We didn't see life anywhere."
Now: "There's life. There's color. You hear children laughing on the playground. There's life here. I can walk out on my balcony and see it every day."
That long road to recovery, which seminary officials say was built by God's goodness and grace, will be celebrated at the NOBTS Homecoming, October 4-6, on the seminary campus.
"We had so many Southern Baptist volunteers who helped us recover," said NOBTS President Chuck Kelley, who initiated the three-day gathering of thanksgiving, praise, and inspiration. "Our contractor told us that Southern Baptist volunteers performed more than $3 million worth of work on the seminary. We wanted to invite these volunteers back to see the finished product."
The Southern Baptist Convention, meanwhile, provided more than $6 million from the overage of its 2004-05 budget to help rebuild the campus and help faculty and students recover from their losses.
In all, the SBC, led by the Executive Committee, allocated nearly $12.5 million for post-Katrina relief from the budget overage, with 50 percent designed for NOBTS, 25 percent to support the North American Mission Board's extensive hurricane disaster relief operations, and 25 percent according to needs in the Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama state conventions to help keep ministers in the field and to assist churches in recovery.
Still, two years after the most devastating hurricane in the nation's history, Kelley said that in his post-Katrina travels questions still arise about the state of the campus.
"As I've traveled around the country, people have asked me about the condition of our campus," Kelley said. "At Homecoming, we especially want them to come and see what God has done."
From the rubble of campus buildings like the old States Apartments, a new work is evident. "We were sad to lose the old States Apartments," Kelley said. "But in its place we have more green space and more playgrounds for our children."
God's work can be seen not only in the bricks and mortar, the lush rolling lawns, or colorful new playgrounds (either repaired or newly-built by Samaritan's Purse), but in the lives of students who fled to twenty-nine states and faculty who were scattered to nine states after the hurricane.
"As I would travel, I'd talk to our students and faculty. They'd say, 'Dr. Kelley, let me tell you what God has done for me and my family,'" he recounted. "Southern Baptists around the country took our students and faculty in and helped them. We saw Southern Baptists at their finest, and what it truly means to be Southern Baptist."
Kelley also praised the faculty. Through their work at seminary extension centers, and because the seminary had embraced technology-delivered learning, about half of the seminary students did not miss a class despite Katrina. The December 2005 graduation went off without a hitch.
"Our faculty did a stupendous job," Kelley said. "God prepared us for Hurricane Katrina by giving us a vision for the extension centers and for technology-delivered learning."
Kelley painted a vivid picture of the tragedy that was the main campus after August 29, 2005. Downed trees made seminary houses invisible. Roads were impassable. Near the pre-school center, piles of downed trees and limbs dwarfed the building. Twisted metal littered the campus.
Today, children romp on the playgrounds. Students chat over coffee in the Hardin Student Center. And Leavell Chapel, its steeple gleaming in the noonday sun, stands as a beacon of hope in this still-staggered city.
"The people I've talked to say the campus is more beautiful than ever," Kelley said. "It's an example of God and His grace."
For Puckett who works with Habitat for Humanity helping to rebuild people's lives, the campus today is "an oasis."
"There are still a lot of people outside the seminary who are hurting," Puckett noted. "But God has provided this place so that after we go out and minister, we can come here as a body of believers and pray together and help each other. We can recharge and go out to minister again."
Homecoming 2007 Schedule of Events
Thursday, October 4
NOBTS homecoming worship event in Leavell Chapel (featuring the worship musical Savior).
Refreshments and desserts in Hardin Student Center.
Friday, October 5
City tours of mission sites, Baptist Crossroads Project, levee breeches, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, etc.
Worship service in Leavell Chapel with recognitions given by Kelley to workers and volunteers.
NOBTS homecoming dinner in Chapel Quadrangle.
Options: golf tournament; campus tours, including faculty homes; afternoon tea at president's home; free time.
Dinner at your favorite New Orleans restaurant.
Saturday, October 6
Family fun fest at Sunshine Park: Fun Run, inflatables, games, flag football game between faculty/staff team and alumni/student team.
Outdoor hotdog lunch at Sunshine Park.
For additional information, log on to www.nobts.edu/homecoming or call 1-800-662-8701.