In the early days after Hurricane Katrina, the nation watched as the day-by-day accounts of New Orleans’ horror unfolded. As a result of high winds and rising flood waters, New Orleans became part of the sea for two weeks and more than 250,000 homes were rendered uninhabitable. Throughout the Gulf region at least 2 million people were displaced to virtually every state in the continental United States.
Now, as the months drag on, New Orleans has been removed from the headlines. But homelessness, strained living conditions, separation from friends and broken lives still bring day-by-day tears, heartache and humiliation unimaginable to the non-Gulf Coast dweller. The indignity of poking through piles of donated clothing, standing in line for FEMA, the American Red Cross, an insurance question or a blanket–assistance hundreds of thousands of people never dreamed of needing–goes on, day after day.
Area churches have risen to the challenge to provide comfort and aid to the suffering. But on average, churches have less than half the number of people they had before the storm, and the strain is beginning to show.
David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist New Orleans, articulated his sentiments in a letter that appeared in The Times-Picayune, which read in part:
“I drive by the stately homes on Canal Boulevard with windows and doors agape, and I realize again that virtually no one lives within two miles of my church facility.
“Some days I wonder if I can really do this–being [a] disaster pastor. I wonder if I am young enough or strong enough or wise enough or good enough. And I know that my church members are experiencing those same thoughts and hesitations.
“Our anxieties are developing a new focus. When first we flooded, we grieved for all that was lost. Now we are contemplating all that is before us, and we suffer from the anxieties of an uncertain future. Most of us are moving from the ‘If only’ to the ‘What now,’ and we honestly don’t know what to make of it.”
Listening and Responding
In late September, on one of Franklin Graham’s visits to the Gulf Coast, he was urged to attend a meeting at the request of leaders who represented churches, the police force and the local government of New Orleans. Franklin listened as individuals shared stories about the needs of their hurting city. One pastor offered, “We need someone who will come and share a message of hope with us.” Other leaders concurred.
In answer to the request, Franklin Graham agreed to hold an evangelistic event that, by unanimous consensus, would be called a “Celebration of Hope.”
Finally … Together
BGEA Crusade Director Jeff Anderson says that for the past 10 years New Orleans church leaders have been in touch with BGEA about coming to guide them in preparing for a united evangelistic event.
Now, Anderson says, the spiritual leaders of the community believe that, with the devastation and desperation in the city, the soil of human hearts has been softened and people are ready to receive a message of hope. The hurricanes brought down the levees and flooded the city, but, according to one pastor, it also brought down levees of racism, denominationalism, spiritual superiority and the divide of cultures like nothing else could. It wasn’t until Katrina hit that the Christian community really came together and decided, “We need this,” said Crosby, Celebration co-chair.
Bishop J.D. Wiley, the other co-chair and pastor of Life Center Cathedral, said that he and other pastors agree: “We cannot become an introverted, self-concerned group. … Although we have our hands full with rebuilding and re-gathering our people, our mission is to reach out and bring hope.”
In six services, Wiley’s average Sunday attendance had totaled 5,000. Now he holds two services of about 500 each. The congregation meets under a tent near the church building, whose roof was badly damaged in the storm. “It’s time to step up and not allow despair and depression to take over,” he said, “but to let people know that God gives hope and strength in the face of disaster.” To delay the Celebration would be to miss an opportunity, he added.
In November, nearly 3,000 churches within a 50-mile radius of New Orleans received an invitation letter to participate in the Celebration of Hope, which will be held March 11-12 at the New Orleans Arena. Thousands of people who evacuated to the Baton Rouge region have also been encouraged to attend.
Anderson, who has worked with BGEA for 30 years, said he’s never experienced a Crusade like this. Though the preparation time is short and it’s taking place in the midst of disaster recovery, Anderson says the principles of effective evangelism, which have been the hallmark of BGEA for more than 50 years, still apply: establishing a prayer base, developing leadership teams in the community and in local congregations and providing the church with training in personal evangelism and discipleship.
They Will Know We Are Christians…
At a time when one might expect that the Church in New Orleans would be doing all it could just to get back on its feet, Christians have been unflagging in their efforts to help others. Dennis Watson’s Celebration Church has become a hub of relief activity where 4,000-5,000 people a day are receiving hot meals, as well as food, water, ice, clothing, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items. At the relief center Watson says that volunteers are able to pray with most people and that many have come to faith in Christ. Volunteers are also going door to door to share the love of Christ, one homeowner, one family, at a time.
Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains go door to door as well, bringing cold water, Bibles and other helpful literature to residents working on their homes. Of the 873 chaplains who have been deployed since Katrina, 378 have been working in the New Orleans area. Teams often travel behind crews from Franklin Graham’s disaster relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse, which has completed more than 350 work orders for New Orleans homeowners.
Watson has observed that local leaders in government, business and education have recognized the impact of Christians since Katrina. “The Church of Jesus inside and outside of the city has responded in an incredible way. This has been the great shining light in the midst of the darkness,” said Watson. “People know that the help they are [receiving] is coming primarily through Christians and Christian organizations.”
In addition to the unity of believers, Watson points to other evidences of God’s Spirit at work since the storm: “We’re seeing the spirit of racism being broken in our city. The spirit of corruption is being exposed. And people in our city, which has had a strong voodoo element, are getting rid of their voodoo idols. We believe that never in the history of the United States has a city been more poised for spiritual awakening than the city of New Orleans.”
People at Life Center Cathedral are now asking more questions, especially about eternity and the Second Coming of Christ, Wylie said. “When you go through this kind of devastation, it forces us to ask, ‘What is life really all about? What’s really important?’”
And Crosby points to other questions on people’s minds: “We hear theology batted about on radio and television and in the newspapers. ‘Why did Katrina happen? Is it God’s judgment falling on this city?’ What is to be our response?”
Crosby says now that so many seeds have been planted in hearts through the practical response of Christians, New Orleans is a fertile field for the Gospel–people are looking for spiritual answers. “We need to offer a venue for the proclamation of the Gospel in a clear and concise manner, where people can respond. Presenting the truth of Christ that never changes is the beginning of a spiritual understanding of this storm,” Crosby says. “The churches were the first responders after Katrina, and now we want God’s people and the churches to be the key responders in the rebuilding of this city.”