A Buddhist monk, a Bourbon Street dancer, a day laborer from Guatemala, and a company CEO could easily run into each other at First Baptist Church of New Orleans—and they could all say hi to the Bunny Friend Eagles basketball team from the Upper Ninth.
In fact, I ran into a toga-clad Buddhist monk in the coffee area we call "The Link"—a name way more appropriate than we ever imagined it would be. He could have kids in the choir program, I thought, as I shook his hand. The queries of Muslim children make Gospel presentations so interesting during choir. Maybe the Buddhist monk heard. Turns out he is studying English with Guatemalan day laborers and recent immigrants from Africa. As Southern Baptists will see firsthand in June, this eclectic mixture of people at First Baptist is a microcosm of the Crescent City—one of the world's most unique and spiritually needy metropolises.
The morning traffic report confirms every day that Thomas Jefferson was right when he sent James Madison to buy the "island of New Orleans" from Napoleon: "The Crescent City Connection is backed up to General DeGaulle. The High Rise is slow all the way to Read Boulevard. Police are caravanning commuters through fog over Lake Pontchartrain. Watch for an accident on the Bonne Carre Spillway near the parish line. Construction is causing problems if you're headed to the Huey, and there are three boats running." Thankfully, Madison secured both the island and the continent through the Louisiana Purchase.
The French Quarter, with its unique architecture and bizarre mix of entertainment and shopping, is truly the geographical heart and soul of the city. The Port of New Orleans and tourism are the major industries. The cuisine is the best in the world.
The new seminarians at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary are reminded, "Toto, you're not in Kansas anymore." The president of the seminary, Chuck Kelley, has called New Orleans home for almost forty years. "You really ought to get your passport stamped when you come here," he jokes.
The only person I ever knew who said New Orleans reminded him of home was a man born and reared in Rio de Janeiro.
I expect that New Orleans boasts a higher percentage of native-born residents among its population than any other major American city. If you marry a girl from New Orleans, prepare to live here the rest of your life. Acquaint yourself with Epiphany, king cakes, and Ash Wednesday, learn the name of the archbishop, and look up the word "debutante."
"It's a city with a soundtrack," my nephew, Paul, exclaimed on the Riverwalk one day. Soulful tunes from trumpets and saxophones create little eddies of the curious at intersections and outside piano bars and near the mighty Mississippi making its turn to the Gulf.
New Orleans is not a concrete, glass, and steel metropolis. The swamps were drained and land was claimed, but this is a conversational city where people chat in the morning as they sip their favorite blends in thousands of small shops. The pace is not as frantic as other cities, and we suspend all productive work for days just to drag ladders and coolers down the streets to catch trinkets at parades.
New Orleans is the city of the saints. Church spires rise in every neighborhood. St. Louis Cathedral is at the geographical and spiritual core. Superstition, animism, and a host of other religious rivulets combine to form a theological swamp that is shallow, murky, and full of muck. Our darkness is more pagan than secular.
Death is high profile. Graves are above ground. Funerals include parades with trombones, umbrellas, colorful hats, and second lines.
Poverty, drugs, illiteracy, corruption, and despair have produced in New Orleans the most violent subculture in America. The carnage is inexplicable, indescribable, and unending among a youthful population that literally pulls the trigger at the front end of any conflict. A higher percentage of the population is incarcerated here than anywhere on earth. Stemming the tide of violence is on everyone's mind, but answers are hard to come by.
The city continues to recover from the incredible devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. While tourism is back in full force, the city still has the highest percentage of blighted properties in the country. Public education has experienced an encouraging makeover while the population remains far below pre-Katrina levels. The movie industry is booming, but full recovery in healthcare remains years away.
The city is a salad bowl of rich, diverse subcultures with many opportunities for significant spiritual dialogue in everyday life. Relationships are valued highly and trust is granted slowly. Public corruption is daily news, so people are suspicious both of individuals and institutions.
New Orleans is hungry to see faith at work. The instruction of James comes to mind: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do" (James 2:18). People have seen plenty of religion with a "form of godliness but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:5). In this city these days, "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" (Galatians 5:6).
Southern Baptists, come to New Orleans for the SBC in June, and bring your friends and family. We are working to make it historic and memorable for those who come—and for "the city that care forgot."