FIRST-PERSON (KATRINA) -- David Hankins: The Lord's promise is faithful and true
Even before the assessments could be properly made, Southern Baptists from across the nation poured out their generosity in time and resources to help Louisiana Baptists coordinate the relief work for New Orleans and its surrounding parishes. Before people started returning home, New Orleans director of missions Joe McKeever called his pastors together to pray and communicate with one another. Sometimes, as many as 120 would meet to encourage one another and to learn the latest information about needs and resources.
As Louisiana Baptists from New Orleans returned home to the devastation, Southern Baptists were there with hot meals, prayer, counsel and their own sweat to start the processes of rebuilding. While we helped those in need, opportunity after opportunity occurred and Southern Baptists were ready to share the transforming gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The pastors and people on the ground know how the combined strength of Southern Baptists made a difference. Here is the testimony of Dennis Watson of Celebration Church: "Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the Celebration Church Relief Center served over 117,000 families. This was for a period of 9 months and with the help of over 20,000 volunteers (most were Southern Baptists). To date, we have served over 140,000 families.
"Volunteers also helped us gut out over 2,000 homes and churches and have also helped us rebuild a number of homes," Pastor Watson reports.
Through all of the disaster relief, recovery and rebuilding ministry, he notes, thousands of people have come to faith in Christ and many have come into Celebration church family. He says the church reaches more people now than it did before the storm.
David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, relays a similar report: "Our local association, state convention and national entities were very important in the immediate aftermath of the storm and through these five years of rebuilding.
"Katrina washed our people out of the building and into the streets of our city," Crosby says. "This may be the reason God allowed the storm to come -- to change the way we do church."
Dr. Crosby and his church continue to experience a growing relationship with Pastor Fred Luter and the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. "Our partnership with Franklin Avenue Baptist Church was probably the most significant spiritual event for our church," Crosby says. "They worshiped in our building for two and a half years. We did men's and women's ministries together. Our people learned to love each other because of the storm. Dr. Luter is preaching the fifth-year anniversary celebration at First Baptist."
The testimony of New Orleans churches continues to demonstrate that God is working good toward His people. Since Katrina, churches like Celebration and First Baptist are experiencing the phenomenon of members engaging the community in multiple and creative ways. New churches have started in the New Orleans area that reflect a passion to reach various people groups that live in the heart of the city and surrounding areas.
From across the country, hundreds of volunteers from churches and schools have come to help with the recovery in New Orleans. One such project was First Baptist Church in Chalmette. Over 3,500 volunteers from 404 churches, 34 state conventions and multiple associations assisted with the rebuilding of the facility. They have now been in their building just nine short months. Pastor John Jeffries says the people are keenly aware of their personal losses but the storm has refocused their evangelistic endeavors.
"The early indications are that the church is even more evangelistic than before," Pastor Jeffries says. "In the last nine months since coming back into existence, we have baptized more than 90. We are now utilizing SBC partnerships to assist us in evangelism."
Just down the road from Chalmette is a community called Poydras. John Galey is the pastor of Poydras Baptist Church. Many Southern Baptists first saw John on a video by the North American Mission Board. He was wearing a mask and talking about the devastation of the church.
"We had 5 feet of water throughout all three of our buildings (auditorium, educational building and fellowship hall). Almost all of St. Bernard Parish was under water," Galey recounts. "We had no ministries from August 29, 2005, to February 2006. No one came back to the community until January 2006. NO ministries took place. Everyone was evacuated to other parts of the country."
Pastor Galey returned on October 1, 2005. He was the first Southern Baptist pastor in the parish. The Missouri Baptist Convention adopted the St. Bernard parish. As volunteers from Missouri poured into the area, their focus was on rebuilding the church buildings. Then they began to send teams that helped homeowners. "Missouri Baptists helped us when we could not even help ourselves," Galey says.
This church has become fully engaged in the Sharing the Peace of Jesus evangelism initiative of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. This spring they prayed over and hung doorknockers on thousands of homes. The storm has taken the church's ministry to the streets through prayer and personal outreach.
There are new things God is doing for our churches in New Orleans. At Celebration Church, Pastor Watson says that the Adopt-A-Church program really helped the congregation. He also notes that the Louisiana Baptist Convention helped with the construction of a new church campus in St. Bernard Parish. Prior to Katrina, this parish was the least evangelized in Louisiana. Pastor Watson believes the Lord is doing such a great work in St. Bernard Parish that "we believe it will one day be the most evangelized parish in all of Louisiana."
"In the initial days following Katrina, we were very discouraged," Watson says. "Both of our campuses at that time had been flooded and our largest campus was almost completely destroyed by Katrina's waters. With very limited flood insurance coverage, there was no hope for rebuilding our campuses. And to compound that problem, we lost 60 percent of our members who were permanently displaced to other cities and states."
However, though the cooperative efforts of Southern Baptists, Celebration has rebuilt both of its Metairie campuses, a new campus in St. Bernard Parish and renovated a campus in St. John Parish. Pastor Watson believes the Lord has used the witness of believers during the relief and rebuilding to create a much larger congregation and a church with a much stronger spiritual dimension.
"Hurricane Katrina was a great tragedy for our church, as well as for our city and region," he says. "However, we've discovered that our God is greater than all of our challenges and that He is able to turn around every tragedy and utilize it for our good, for others' good and for His glory."
I could not agree more. Our faithful God has transformed tragedy into good. Today we are better prepared for a disaster. We know more about mobilizing people and resources for relief and rebuilding. We've learned the value of communicating and networking together. For Louisiana Baptists, we've learned afresh the importance of Southern Baptists cooperating together with the goal of permeating one of our nation's great cities with the gospel. It's all because our faithful God brought good out of tragedy.
David Hankins is executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.