New Orleans Celebrates God’s Faithfulness (Part 1 of 2)

By Amanda Knoke   •   April 6, 2006

Diesel trucks loaded with crunched cars and scrap metal rumble by on the Lower Ninth Ward’s Forstall Road. Other cars still litter the neighborhood, upside down, sideways and on top of each other. One is lodged underneath a house. The back-up beeping of large vehicles and the pounding of a distant pile driver mark time. Some homes still standing are crushed into each other or have been ripped from their foundations. In the wrecked ward, signs plead not to bulldoze. Trees are draped with plastic bags, matted clothing, blankets … and Mardi Gras beads. In a single tree, the white, red and silver beads glisten in the late afternoon sun.

It is into this scene that Billy and Franklin Graham emerged from their van.

As Mr. Graham surveyed the area, he said, “I thought I had seen it all,” adding that he had not called his wife, Ruth, since his arrival because he was not emotionally capable of conveying the loss he was witnessing firsthand.

Television could not adequately describe the devastation, Franklin said, comparing the neighborhood to photographs he had seen of Hiroshima. “When you see the destruction, you realize that it has economically wiped out one’s life, one’s dreams.” Franklin believes that much of the American public has a skewed picture of the condition of New Orleans, that when people see the Mardi Gras parade, they say, “Look, New Orleans is back! Isn’t that great?”

“It’s not back,” he said.

The Bible warns that we don’t know when disaster could fall upon any one of us, he added. “The question is, are we ready to stand before a holy God?” The Grahams had come to New Orleans to help people prepare for that Day and to find hope in God through Jesus Christ.

Plea for a City
Soon after Katrina, Franklin Graham asked to meet with local civic and ministry leaders to assess the needs of the New Orleans area. At that meeting, he listened to the stories of each one gathered, including the mayor of Gretna, police officers and local pastors. “Franklin Graham heard our cry for our city,” said Kathy Radke, Protestant chaplain for Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Department. “He heard each one of us share our heart.”

Those in the meeting wept openly after Capt. David Kirsch, an NOPD officer whose charge had been most of the Westbank, told Franklin that 75 to 80 percent of the police officers had lost their homes, and their families were now living in other parts of the state or country. Most had nothing except the clothes on their backs. And, because there was no other food, a breakfast of potato chips was sustaining their agonizing rescue and recovery work. Two officers had committed suicide.

Before the sharing was over, two pastors had asked Franklin outright to speak to their city. “I think that New Orleans is ready for a Gospel campaign–the people are ready, their hearts are broken and they need hope,” said Randy Cilluffo, pastor of Believer’s Life Family Church, in Gretna. Anthony Freeman, church-planter, then-president of New Orleans School of Urban Missions and coordinator of the City of Gretna’s relief efforts, was the last to speak: “We need a Crusade.”

Franklin immediately agreed.

What the collection of clergy and city officials had not expected was that Franklin would bring his father to New Orleans with him. As the aftermath of Katrina unfolded, a burden for the city had grown in Billy Graham’s heart, and he indicated to his son more than once that he would like to minister in New Orleans.

For All the Saints
Eight feet of standing water filled the sanctuary of Faith Church in New Orleans East. Pastor Michael Green recalls the cleaning out process: “It’s heartbreaking to see a Bobcat in there popping out 2,000 seats. It will cut your guts out.” Green says more than 1,000 people from his congregation are in 17 different states since Katrina and the flooding. The youth group shrank from 120 to 10. Now Green holds two services for the roughly 450 remaining, one at a shopping center and one at a furniture warehouse with no heat or air conditioning. Green tells of a couple in the congregation who came back to clean out their house and couldn’t open their door because so much had collapsed on the floor in front of it. They finally kicked the back door open. “Everything was toppled down,” Green says, “and the smell …” He says the husband and wife looked at each other and just pulled the door shut.

“We’re fighting discouragement and despair,” Green says. But he is resolute that he and his wife, Linda, will speak faith to their people. “Faith is the only answer,” he says. “It’s our bottom line to encourage people.”

Michael and Linda Green are representative of hundreds of pastors in the Gulf Coast region who lost their homes, churches and most of their congregation, but who fight to stay positive and encouraging to their remaining flock. On Thursday, prior to speaking at the Celebration of Hope on the weekend, Franklin and Billy Graham, Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea greeted nearly 1,000 ministry leaders, pastors and their spouses for a noon reception at First Baptist Church in New Orleans.

Freeman, the pastor who had asked Franklin directly for a Crusade, was moved by this opportunity for pastors. “If we wanted God to encourage us, how could you think of encouraging a group of pastors? It would be by sending one of His choice servants to come and talk to us,” Freeman said. “Dr. Graham is one of those people. We couldn’t ask for more than this. This is a precious moment.”

The buzz of voices lowered to a hush as Billy Graham, his son and his Team approached the platform at First Baptist. In Franklin’s opening remarks, he emphasized the reason for the presence of BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse in the Gulf Coast region: “We have come to support the Church. When we’re gone, you, the Church, are still here. We want the work we do to be done through you and to be seen by the world as coming through you. We come to your community as your servants for Christ’s sake.”

Billy Graham looked down at the pulpit, which bears the placard, “Pulpit used by Billy Graham, New Orleans Crusade, Oct. 2-31, 1954,” before he spoke.

“I’m absolutely devastated at what I’ve felt and seen in the couple days that I’ve been here,” Mr. Graham said. He encouraged them with the example of Job, who lost his children and all he had but still worshiped God and trusted Him: “God restored him and gave him many times more in the end than he ever had in the beginning.” Mr. Graham acknowledged that it was difficult to see, especially after touring the Ninth Ward, but he believed that out of the destruction would grow a new New Orleans and that the people gathered before him would be the key to that progress. “New Orleans will become a center that people will look to for spiritual help in the days to come,” he said. And he offered encouragement from the Apostle Paul: “All things–all things–work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose” (Cf. Romans 8:28). Mr. Graham told the pastors that with all his heart, he loved them.

Empowering Pastors to Love People
Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans East, walks with Franklin through the skeleton of his church, once home to a congregation of 7,000 in multiple services. Standing in the dark former sanctuary, Franklin encourages Luter to see his church as a beacon of hope for the neighborhood and community, and he calls for a time of prayer, claiming the blocks near the church for God.

Before departing, Franklin asks to walk in the church’s neighborhood, now no more than a ghost town. Broken windows and doors are boarded up; homes bear watermark scars. In the blustery, desolate day, torn screens billow in the wind, metal rattles, doors bang open and shut as the two men walk. Brown threads of cassette tape, roof tarps, plastic bags and a black sweater caught in a fence whip in the wind.

Even in these surroundings, Franklin encourages Luter to consider reconnecting with neighbors, starting with the blocks around the church. “A church like this can be a hub in the community–the houses have not been totally destroyed,” Franklin says. “Let this be a beacon of hope that people on other blocks can see and say, ‘I’m coming back.'”

The following day, Franklin visited Nelson Brown, pastor of Greater St. Mary Baptist Church, in Algiers, who received 26 Samaritan’s Purse trailers to distribute to those displaced from the hurricanes and flooding.

A pastor who weathered Katrina in his home, Brown remembers hearing three-quarters of his roof rip off–and quoting God’s promises back to Him. Brown says that he emerged from his home about eight o’clock the next morning, went to his church’s kitchen and started cooking for people. “I haven’t stopped cooking since,” he says with a laugh. “Every morning I’m in at six. It’s a big operation …”

Brown seems to have no end to the compassion he feels for the people he reaches out to, and he says that if there are warnings of another hurricane, he will again stay to minister to the people. In the early months after Katrina, Brown and his church served upward of 1,000 meals a day, and as of mid-March they were still serving an average of 250 daily. The church also brought meals to the police department. “I count it all joy,” Brown says.

A couple blocks from Greater St. Mary’s dining room is the church’s trailer park ministry.

Thelma and William Donaldson, formerly of devastated Plaquemines Parish, lost everything and say that their home is currently in a drainage ditch.

“FEMA claimed they lost my trailer,” Thelma says. “But Reverend Brown connected me to [a] Samaritan’s Purse [trailer]. I love it. It’s just right for me.” Inside the Donaldsons’ fresh new dwelling, Thelma rejoices over the beds, refrigerator and stove that came with the trailer. “I’ve never seen her so happy,” says granddaughter Lavuanya Alexis. “I’ll tell you what it is, God answered her prayers. That’s what it is.”

A few trailers away, Franklin stands on the porch of Mary LeRoy’s trailer.

LeRoy recounts the day that Brown saw her and said, “I have a key for you.” She draws a quick breath and her eyes flash with delight as she remembers the moment: “I wanted to cry. All I could say is thank God! Thank you, Pastor Brown! Thank you!” LeRoy says that sometimes she just walks from room to room in the trailer, so thankful that it is hers.

After touring LeRoy’s trailer, Franklin leans on the railing of her porch and addresses those who have gathered below: “These homes have come from God–God has given them for you through Pastor Brown.” He reminds them that as they go through storms in life, including storms other than hurricanes, “The anchor that we hold on to is the Lord Jesus Christ. These homes are a testimony–a gift of God. He loves us and cares for us, and He has provided. We want to give God the glory.”

Before he leaves, he greets the residents individually and gives them each a Bible, encouraging all to make it a part of their life.

Churches Together
As they help their neighbors and communities, the Christians in New Orleans and surrounding areas are also helping each other. In addition to breaking down physical church walls, pastors repeatedly say that Katrina has blessed the area by bringing down walls of denomination and race and that the storm has paved the way for cooperation and love.

Fred Luter and more than 1,000 others from Franklin Avenue Baptist Church meet at First Baptist Church at 7:30 a.m before David Crosby holds his Sunday service. First Baptist Chalmette is meeting with two sister churches in a high school. In the days surrounding Katrina, 200 pastors from the Pastors Resource Council (PRC) came together to form the PRC-Compassion, which provides food, clothing, shelter and counseling to those in need. The PRC-Compassion is also helping churches to rebuild after the storms and flooding.

“We’ve been plagued by a spirit of poverty and violence; we’ve been named murder capital of the U.S. numerous times; we’ve had witchcraft and voodoo; we’ve had the highest alcoholic rate in the nation, corruption and isolation between churches,” says Dennis Watson, pastor of Celebration Church and member of the PRC-Compassion. “Now those walls have come down, and we have the greatest opportunity in the history of the United States for a major city to experience economic, cultural and–most important–spiritual transformation.”

In God’s mercy, the storm also provided many who evacuated from the city, especially the poor, another chance. “The city was so overwhelmed with the poverty here that neither it nor the churches had the resources to meet the needs,” says Kathy Radke, who had been part of the group that encouraged Franklin to come. Now, she says, she has heard over and over how the Church has stepped up in communities across the country to help the displaced. “Jesus is our hope,” Radke says, “and this didn’t take God by surprise.”

The Providence of God
The faith of Christians in New Orleans and the surrounding area has been immeasurably strengthened as they have seen God’s love and provision woven through their circumstances in the last months.

Paul Gilmore, a former New Orleans East homeowner who lost everything, says that he has seen miracle after miracle through the love of others for his family: Wal-Mart and Target gift cards; bags of food, clothing and toiletries left at his door; a church in Tennessee who gave them bedding, towels, 24 pieces of clothing and a cart-full of groceries; a man who heard him speaking to creditors on his cell phone and gave him $200 to help with the bills. “I saw miracles which were really God’s provision,” says Gilmore. “People I had never seen before in my life were helping us. I could see the hand of God woven through the whole thing.”

Stories like Gilmore’s have caused him and others to say, “Lord, I am totally available to You, whatever You want.” After losing everything, Gilmore says that he could choose either to blame God–or stay with Him and fully serve Him. “There’s no middle ground,” Gilmore says. “So I said let’s go all the way. Let’s go all the way with God.”

Just walking down the streets of New Orleans, one can sense a spiritual change, says Capt. John Bryson, with the NOPD. “There’s an unusual humbleness, a meekness that has come from an act of God,” he says. “Great things have come out of Katrina. I think there is a new reverence for human life.”

Lt. Bruce Adams, also with the NOPD, says that before Katrina he routinely investigated two to five murders a night. He and other officers had been praying specifically that the violence would let up. “The city was really hurting,” Bryson says. “We were getting bashed in the news–justifiably. As of mid-March, Bryson says they’ve only had about a dozen murders since Aug. 29. “God has blessed this city in many other ways,” he says. “But in that way in particular.”

Many in New Orleans mention the approaching hurricane season and the prospect of evacuating again. But now, those who have embraced the evidence of God’s faithfulness at every turn are ready. And pastors, first responders, Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team have all said, “We’ll be here.”

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