Frank Page thought he was prepared for New Orleans in his first official visit as president of the Southern Baptist Convention since his election in mid-June.
But that was before pastors David Crosby of First Baptist Church in New Orleans and Waylon Bailey of First Baptist in nearby Covington drove Page around the still-devastated metropolitan area July 17.
They stopped where a house was being gutted — everything inside torn out and piled on the street — and where forty houses were being built this summer in a joint SBC/Habitat for Humanity project; they drove through numerous neighborhoods that sat in as much as fourteen feet of salt water for more than two weeks last September; and they toured the sparklingly repaired New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Page spoke at a "Miracle Mondays in July" inspirational evening session at First Baptist in Covington on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and, the next morning, at the weekly gathering of pastors in the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans at Oak Park Baptist in New Orleans.
"I keep up with the news," Page said after speaking at the Covington church. "I had seen the photographs. But there's no way the news can capture the amount of devastation I saw today — mile after mile after mile of it …. Virtually what I saw was a ghost town — huge areas where no one can live yet.
"I believe this provides an opportunity for greater ministry, an opportunity to reshape a city for Christ," the president continued. "I'll be speaking about this all over the nation …. I'm just one person, but I know I can have some impact."
Page talked to his audiences about what he saw in New Orleans and his thoughts for his year as SBC president. And he talked a bit about himself, to help people get to know him, he said. He also brought strong messages of encouragement, challenge, and evangelism.
"What I saw today just burdened my soul," Page said to three hundred or more members and guests in Covington. "I have never seen such devastation on such a scale." He preached from Hebrews 12:1-2 at First Baptist and from 1 Samuel 17 and 1 Chronicles 20 at the pastors' gathering.
"We're going to see how to claim our inheritance," the president said. His four points: look at the witnesses who set the example; lay aside every hindrance; run with perseverance; and look unto Jesus.
"Could it be there are things, habits, circumstances in your life that you need to lay aside? … Do not let that storm be one that holds you down," Page preached. "It's part of our inheritance to expect victory."
His message to the pastors dealt with giants. Katrina was a Goliath, akin to the Philistine behemoth, Page said, listing other giants that have followed the hurricane: overarching malaise, oppressive spirits, and rolling depression, among others.
Put on God's armor, he exhorted the pastors, and become a giant-killer.
The thousands of volunteers who already have ministered in New Orleans illustrate the strength of the Cooperative Program and the cooperative spirit of Southern Baptists, Page said. He thanked the pastors for their support of CP missions and pledged that an increasing number of volunteers would follow those who have already set the pace.
"I'm going to tell people to come to New Orleans," Page said to the pastors. "Get down. Get dirty. I see a singular opportunity here to reshape a society, an entire metropolitan area. Come and help. Come and be a part of what God is doing to reshape New Orleans."
A question-and-answer session followed.
"What made you decide to run for the presidency?"
"On May 10, a man from Missouri called me and asked if I'd consider running. I said I'd be smushed like a bug, but that I'd pray about it …. This is not something I'd ever dreamed about or wanted … [but] as I was riding on my lawnmower, God asked me if I was willing to do whatever He wanted."
Page said he has four main objectives for the SBC during his presidency.
First and foremost, that a spirit of repentance from the Holy Spirit of God would take hold in churches across the denomination.
Second, that churches across the SBC be transformed into healthy organisms that bear fruit.
Third, Page said he plans to continue a renewed commitment to evangelism that took root during Bobby Welch's presidency, and he's going to lead by example. He has several evangelistic emphases planned over the next year at First Baptist Church in Taylors, South Carolina, where he is pastor. One is a Book of Life emphasis, during which members of the congregation will write out their testimonies and place them in a book with others from the church.
His fourth objective is a strengthening of the Cooperative Program.
"If I'm a Southern Baptist, I have a moral obligation to support the Cooperative Program," Page said to spontaneous applause. "Our commitment to the Cooperative Program has been going downhill and we need to get it up there to do what we need to do."
Page spoke of the vacation to Yellowstone National Park he and his wife took right after the SBC's annual meeting in June, a fifth-year anniversary gift from his church. They were in West Yellowstone, Montana, at the west entrance to the park at about 9 p.m. one Sunday when they drove past a bustling First Baptist Church.
"Here we were, in the midst of what some people might say is 'nowheresville,' and there were all these Southern Baptists," Page exclaimed. He met Brad Lartigue, longtime SBC resort missionary in the park, who supervises about twenty-five Innovators — people who earn a living in summer jobs at the park and who use their off-duty hours for evangelism — and a Mission Service Corps volunteer sent out by Southern Baptists.
"I introduced myself to them as Frank Page, new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and they looked at me like, 'Yeah, sure,'" Page said to laughter.
"I want us to regain a cooperative spirit," Page said. "Churches are moving into an isolationistic mentality." First Baptist in Taylors is sent out a dozen teams on short-term mission projects this summer. Reaching out to other churches is good for every church involved, Page said.
"It has touched my heart — it's burdened my soul and touched my mind as to what to say to Southern Baptists," Page said when asked how his drive around New Orleans had changed him. He said he would encourage denominational leaders to visit New Orleans.
Bottom line: "Let's emphasize what pulls us together," Page said. "I'm going to try to bring unity as best I can. Who does this Convention belong to? There are a lot of people who think it belongs to them [but] it's not mine; it's not yours. It belongs to Christ."