KATRINA 2005-15: Still in our 'mind & heart
NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- A middle-aged woman attended worship at our church a few Sundays ago. She came in early and sat up front on the center aisle. I greeted her and introduced myself.
She promptly told me her Katrina story. She lived for years in Lakeview. The flood destroyed her home. She permanently relocated to a small town in central Louisiana. A faith community there reached out to her, and she now attends every Sunday. She came to our church during a visit to New Orleans because she wanted to thank God for the journey of faith the flood had caused her to travel.
A week earlier, a couple I had not seen before slipped into a pew. They had evacuated in Hurricane Katrina, they said, and were only now, nearly 10 years later, returning permanently to our city.
Week by week -- almost day by day -- without prompting or questioning, I hear the Katrina stories. I told my own story the other day in response to the query of a stranger. The evacuation on the contraflow, the destruction of my daughters' homes, the church facility as a relief center, our deployment of 21,000 volunteers, building 91 homes in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, gutting more than a thousand flooded homes -- these are components of my own narrative.
A Baptist denominational executive from Texas said he was surprised and delighted to see the diversity in the membership of First Baptist New Orleans after a visit to our church.
We are black and white, Asian and Latino, and all over the economic scale as a church. This diversity is in part the legacy of Hurricane Katrina.
The devastation of Hurricane Katrina forced an outward focus for our church. The flood washed us out of our building and into our community. Cleanup and rebuilding programs, educational ministries, feeding initiatives, medical missions and rehabilitation efforts involved hundreds of our members. I found myself working in Treme, Bywater, Mid-City, the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, East New Orleans, Chalmette, Lakeview and virtually all over the flooded footprint of our city.
All the doors in the city were standing ajar after the flood. There was little point in locking up. Everything was ruined. Driving down the streets, one would see the debris line drawn by the floodwaters on every structure along with the gaping doors and windows on practically every house.
Those open doors were to me a vivid symbol of the new openness we all experienced in the crisis. Post-Katrina outreach connected our congregation with the wide range of people outside the doors of our church. As trust and friendships developed, a greater diversity of people gathered inside the building.
A permanent change occurred in the spirit and character of First Baptist New Orleans. Efforts to reach out to our neighbors continue to this day. Authentic faith goes to the need and is not constrained by race or social standing.
Most importantly, Hurricane Katrina presented us with the opportunity to partner with pastor Fred Luter and Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, a large and predominantly black congregation. Our two congregations shared education space, offices and the worship center for nearly three years. We joined forces to do men's ministry, women's ministry, health ministries, prayer groups, summer camps and fellowships of all kinds.
Our congregations learned to love each other deeply, and that bond of love remains strong a decade later. I was delighted to nominate Pastor Luter to be the first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His candidacy was unopposed. The election occurred here in New Orleans on June 19, 2012. It was a moment of celebration for our churches and our convention that we will never forget.
Talking about race is not easy. Listening is even more difficult. Hurricane Katrina has given our city an unusual opportunity to set aside any prejudice and listen to the stories of others. We discover, if we listen, that our stories are similar, that we have the same dreams and we hold in common many concerns and priorities.
We rode the buses. We evacuated in helicopters. We got stuck on the contraflow. We were downtown in a vertical evacuation. We were at Baptist Hospital and the Superdome. We manned the boats and rescued the drowning and buried the dead.
Simon was an old man when Hurricane Katrina thundered down upon us. He sat on the interstate for hours and scarcely moved. He called his nephew and said he had lived a good, long life, and he was going to return home. He drowned in Lakeview the next day. I miss him still.
We did not drown or die. We are Katrina survivors. We know what it takes to put your life and community back together. Our memories are not all pleasant, but they are powerful. And they continue to shape the people that we are and will become.
We have not gotten over the great flood. We are still going through it in mind and heart. We live today in the light of what we learned about the transitory nature of things and the supreme value of one another.