Where voodoo & Christianity collide
NEW ORLEANS (BP)--The subtle or blatant presence of idolatry and debauchery abounds in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Yet, a beacon of hope is nestled snugly just off Bourbon Street -- Vieux Carre Baptist Church.
"The difference between the French Quarter and [other] suburban areas is the concentration of darkness," Greg Hand, the church's pastor, noted. His wife Wren added, "There is a very real spiritual oppression that is present here."
Walk past 711 Dauphine St. on a Sunday morning and you'll hear music that is in stark contrast to what you see and hear on the rest of the street. With the doors of the church wide open, the Hands and the congregation sing praises to the Lord. Coffee and a friendly handshake greet anyone who comes through the doorway -- some stumble into a seat, while others greet their friends and fellow church members. This Sunday, a tourist couple saw the church sign while walking down Bourbon Street and joined in.
Vieux Carre's location makes for a diverse congregation. The demographics of the French Quarter range from the wealthy business person to the homeless. On a Sunday morning Hand typically preaches to a congregation that may include a seminary professor, public school teacher, retiree, social worker, students and street performers.
"The congregation was not like anything I've seen before. Some faithful members do not have a place to lay their head," said Chase Abner, director of Baptist Collegiate Ministries at Southern Illinois University, who led a team of collegians to assist Vieux Carre in reaching the French Quarter through prayerwalking and street evangelism last March.
Vieux Carre gave Abner "a new glance into church planting in a unique corner of America. It's exciting to see a church in that context doing what Christ commanded, sharing the Gospel."
Abner had visited New Orleans before the trip, but he was shocked nevertheless by what he experienced early Sunday morning in the French Quarter. "It was a really sad, sad sight, walking down the street at 9 a.m. and seeing a bar still open," he recounted. "People were drinking, the music was cranked up and folks were slumped over the bar."
"In urban ministry," Hand said, "you have an opportunity to impact a lot of people in a lot of different ways. When it's [spiritual] warfare, you have to have a heart to battle and to always be ready to see the positive in the people no matter what lifestyle they are living.... Every day, I walk by hundreds of people who need the Good News.... This is good fertile soil."
Whether it's the tourist visiting the city or the person walking out of a "gay bar," the Hands seek to convey a message of love as they walk around the city. One person who was the recipient of "sowing seeds of love is now here [at church] set free," Hand said.
Kendall Magee of Pineville, La., participated in an outreach in the French Quarter last February. Handing out Gospel tracts and witnessing to people on the street, he led five people to the Lord. All were residents who worked in the French Quarter's restaurants or drove horse-drawn carriages that are popular with tourists.
"The sense we got," Magee said, "is the people who live and work there, God is really working in them. They are ready to receive the Gospel."
That openness has prompted Vieux Carre to expand its outreach to the employees of bars, clubs and hotels. Two women at the church, for example, take gift baskets in the afternoon to female dancers in the clubs. They go long before any of the night's activities begin, visiting, talking and praying for the women in need. Some are fleeing domestic violence, others are trying to support their families. Regardless, Wren Hand said, it's a reminder that "nobody is beyond His love … His reach."
Mardi Gras may be New Orleans' most well-known party, but it's only one of of a series of festivals and holiday celebrations held nearly year-round in the French Quarter. "It's a constant party down here," Wren said.
Two Sundays before Mardi Gras, for example, the "Barkus" parade passes by the church, providing a unique opportunity for connecting with the community. As the participants pass with their dressed-up pets, "we have coffee and dog treats as an outreach," Wren said.
"We need a lot of prayer cover," she said. Every Monday morning a prayer gathering is held at the church for its outreach to the community, and Greg sends out an e-mail newsletter full of prayer requests for the congregation, with a goal of enlisting 100-plus prayer partners.
Volunteer teams, meanwhile, are welcome throughout the year and specific outreach events are planned during Mardi Gras, with Greg noting, "We don't shut the doors during Mardi Gras."
"We like to facilitate ministries," Wren said. "This is a place God can use us to help be a catalyst for change."
Stacey Billger is the Louisiana Baptist Convention's missions media strategist. Information about prayer needs and volunteer opportunities at Vieux Carre Baptist Church can be accessed at www.frenchquarterchurch.com.