This team has been a witness in our community," New Orleans pastor Fred Luter said after one hundred and twenty volunteers ventured to the still-stricken city from Georgia's African-American Fellowship and Sisters on Mission.
"Our outreach ministry is at work in the neighborhood even though the community is sparse and we have not yet returned to our own facility," said Luter, pastor of the six thousand-member Franklin Avenue Baptist Church that was dispersed by flooding from Hurricane Katrina and now meets in three different locations.
John Mason, pastor of Providence Community Baptist Church in Marietta, Georgia, led the team of one hundred and twenty construction and evangelism volunteers from eight Georgia churches.
Regardless of the challenge they faced, Mason said the Georgia churches would be blessed by their ministry in New Orleans. "A mission-minded church," he noted, "has fewer problems on the inside when they are ministering on the outside."
Mason cited the testimonies by Luter and other Louisiana pastors during a black church week at LifeWay Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina as prompting the Georgians' mission trip.
And, as Penny Ellis, founder of Sisters on Mission, an organization leading African American women to be more involved in Southern Baptist mission work, said, "Katrina awakened a desire in the African American community to help our own people."
The New Orleans trip marked the second Gulf Coast mission trip for the African-American Fellowship, following an initial outreach in Gulfport, Mississippi, last year. The Georgia teams have included men, women, and children ranging in age from 6 to 76.
For New Orleans, the volunteers adopted a "motto of unity" for their outreach, Ellis said, referencing words drawn from Romans 15. "We came with 'one mind and one voice,'" she said, "to glorify God." Ellis along with her husband and three children were part of a group of sixteen volunteers from Peace Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia.
Unity is a subject that Luter knows something about.
Soon after the flooding, and while the Franklin Avenue facility is being restored, three churches — First Baptist in New Orleans, Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge, and First Baptist in Houston, Texas — have served as off-site campuses for the displaced New Orleans congregation.
"These are predominantly Anglo churches that we did not have a relationship with before Katrina," Luter said. "I see God's hand in the development of these relationships, and I have no doubt they will continue."
The construction volunteers from Georgia worked at three homes and on the worship center and parsonage of Lakeview Baptist Church in conjunction with Operation N.O.A.H. (New Orleans Area Homes) Rebuild, an initiative of the North American Mission Board and Louisiana Baptists to reach the city for Christ while renovating flooded homes.
Evangelism team members, meanwhile, ministered in the French Quarter and in the neighborhoods of Franklin Avenue, Lakeview, and Shiloh Christian Fellowship by prayerwalking, organizing block parties, and distributing baskets of various provisions.
Kathryn Cole, of Green Forest Community Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia, directed the evangelistic efforts in which five people came to faith in Christ and an additional twenty reaffirmed their salvation. Cole said the teams received a warm reception from people in the French Quarter and in downtown New Orleans.
"The harvest was plentiful," Cole said. "They were very responsive and very grateful."
While team members said the destruction in New Orleans is greater than they anticipated, Charles Buffington, a volunteer from Green Forest, reflected, "It's not the level of devastation, it's the hope of the people. By showing a genuine Christian concern for others, we are inspiring the people here to know that God loves them."
Cole said she hopes team members will carry the excitement from the trip back to their own churches and create a renewed fervor for missions. Zion Baptist in Marietta, Community Life Baptist in Milledgeville, New Calvary Missionary Baptist in Atlanta, and The Church at Griffin and Macedonia Baptist in Macon also were represented among the volunteers.
"As these team members go back and begin to mobilize their own people then the number of teams and the options for ministry will multiply," Ellis said.
"Southern Baptists on mission with God along the Gulf Coast are making a huge difference," said John L. Yeats, director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention. "We are grateful for these Southern Baptists who belong to the African-American Fellowship. Their faithfulness to the mission of reaching the lost and expressing hope in a community devastated by the storm will have an impact for generations. I'm confident they took home with them a deep sense of how effective cooperative ministry is for impacting people with the Gospel."
Toni Jacob, one of four New Calvary members among the volunteers, said she hopes they will be able to communicate to her church why missions is so important.
"Our church is beginning to discover all that our Convention is doing in missions, and we just had to be a part of it," Jacob said.
"When it comes to missions," Ellis added, "we Southern Baptists do it well."