Marilyn Stewart, Regional Reporter
NEW ORLEANS — After 196 continuous days of response along the Gulf Coast, Southern Baptist leaders knew the third phase of disaster relief – rebuilding — would take an effort bigger than anything ever attempted before, said Mickey Caison, the North American Mission Board disaster relief coordinator in 2005.
In the New Orleans area alone, an estimated 100,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed. Responding in kind, Southern Baptists gave through the North American Mission Board and state conventions the largest disaster relief offering ever collected, Caison said.
After a record-breaking disaster relief response, Southern Baptists were ready to mobilize to rebuild.
The result was unprecedented, said Freddie Arnold, church planter strategist for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans in 2005.
“It was probably the most impressive thing Southern Baptists ever did. The churches came together and stood together, and it was a long-term relationship,” Arnold said. “We’d never seen anything like that before.”
A letter to the editor printed Mar. 1, 2007 in The Times-Picayune, the New Orleans newspaper, showed the impact Southern Baptist volunteers had made. Frustrated at the lack of response of another denomination in cleaning out one of its churches, the letter writer wrote, “[They] should have called the Baptists.”
Bringing the Gospel to life
In the wake of a history-making disaster and with the balance of a $25 million dollar offering collected for disaster relief, the next step came into focus, Caison said.
“We began to catch a picture of the great funding that would be available and the great needs that were out there,” Caison said. “Southern Baptists always step up in that kind of environment.”
Operation NOAH [New Orleans Area Homes] Rebuild, a partnership of the North American Mission Board, the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans and its churches, was born. Three floors of New Orleans’ World Trade Center, dubbed the Volunteer Village, were secured to provide accommodations for 450 volunteers nightly.
NOAH partners included the Southern Baptist Convention of Texas, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and the Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama and Oklahoma Baptist Conventions, as each adopted a section of the city as a focal point for its volunteer service and support.
From its official launch in May 2006 until 3 years later, NOAH volunteers rebuilt 500 homes and 26 damaged churches, schools and ministry centers with the help of more than 26,500 volunteers from around the world. In its first year alone, 203 came to faith in Christ.
Other partnerships formed as state conventions caught a vision for the Gospel and came to serve.
“It was exciting and amazing to see so much come together,” Arnold said.
At Gentilly Baptist Church, New Orleans, the Baptist Builders of the Arkansas and Kansas-Nebraska Baptist Conventions, with other partners, set up headquarters in a three-year commitment that rebuilt homes in the Gentilly neighborhood and around the city.
In a relationship that continues to today, the Arkansas and Kansas-Nebraska Baptist Builders mobilized 16,000 volunteers to rebuild 438 homes and complete more than 3500 tasks such as cleaning a yard or fixing windows, to date.
In the hard-hit lower Plaquemines Parish where the eye of the storm passed, the Baptist General Association of Virginia partnered directly with the Port Sulphur Baptist Church, the one church out of five in the area to rebuild.
“Others helped, but most of our support came from Virginia,” said Lynn Rodrigue, pastor.
Builders for Christ, an Alabama-based Southern-Baptist church building organization, poured its resources into St. Bernard Parish and First Chalmette, rebuilding Northshore Baptist in Slidell, as
Churches and ministry centers across the Greater New Orleans area shared volunteer housing and materials in a cooperative effort to rebuild homes and lives.
Jackie James, director of operations for the Arkansas State Convention Baptist Builders, said 100 of its 1100 volunteers one month were housed at another Southern Baptist facility to accommodate the great response.
At First New Orleans, a six-person staff was hired to manage the volunteer work force that worked at Baptist Crossroads, the church’s housing initiative in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, and in its home recovery ministry serving the neighborhood.
Members’ homes were the focus of Franklin Avenue’s housing initiative, Operation Back Home, to help members return so ministry to a hurting community could begin again.
One homeowner, a father with young children who had lost both job and home, said of a team of Southern Baptist volunteers from Hawaii that came to his aid, “What they did for my family—they took the Gospel right off the pages of scripture and brought it to life.”
The wristbands worn by NOAH volunteers from Spring Hill Baptist Church, Granville, Oh., read “embracing sacrifice,” to remind them of their biblical call to service. On the team’s first trip to New Orleans, 60 professions of faith resulted.
Student team members prayed over each house and wrote scripture on the back of drywall before hanging. One student wrote Zephaniah 3: 17, “The Lord your God is with you… he will quiet you with his love…”
Putting lives back together was understood to be as important as rescuing homes.
“Anybody can put a house back together,” James said. “We’re here to rebuild lives.”
David Maxwell, NOAH project coordinator who came from the pastorate at Ridge Avenue Baptist Church, West Monroe to the position, expressed it this way, “I left the pastorate, but I didn’t leave the ministry.”
NOAH volunteer Dan Rees, a Gideon and a deacon at the 15-member Sharpsburg Baptist Church, Sharpsburg, Ky., handed out Gideon New Testaments during breaks from construction. “There is great need here,” Rees said at the time. “I wish I could have come sooner.”
At Calvary Baptist Church, New Orleans, where a million meals had been served from its parking lot, the NOAH headquarters directed volunteers to projects and service. Two other sites across the city were used to warehouse tools and supplies.
Steve Gahagan, a professional builder with 11 years’ service as a construction coordinator for World Changers, NAMB’s construction project program for youth and college students, oversaw the rebuilding effort as NOAH’s construction manager.
“The most fulfilling part of the job is when a volunteer tells me they have led someone to the Lord,” Steve Gahagan said once. “That’s why we’re here. God has used Katrina to give us a city open to the gospel.”
Volunteers of all ages came, including 91 year-old Leroy Fox, of Rosebower Baptist Church, Paducah, Ky., who helped with electrical work on his first trip, and cleaning on his second.
Many made multiple trips.
Center Point Church in Richland Hills, Tx., invested 30,668 man-hours of labor and $15,000 in donated furnishings and materials over 7 trips to rebuild the home of a senior adult near the Industrial Canal levee break.
In one month alone—March 2007—NOAH mobilized more than 5,000 volunteers, the majority of them college and high school students on spring break, to produce what Gahagan called the equivalent of a half million dollars worth of work. The same month, other Southern Baptist organizations mobilized record numbers of volunteers in a blitz of rebuilding and recovery work.
Jack Hunter, executive director for the association, now named the New Orleans Baptist Association, said Southern Baptists followed the example of the Good Samaritan to bring comfort and healing to victims of the storm.
“We mudded out the homes of our neighbors. We cried together. We shared what we had with them. We prayed and praised God together,” Hunter wrote in a reflection on the storm. “Love was redefining us.”
‘Watch and See’
Mickey Caison recalled occasions when a team was caught in a bind as a needed building material ran out. As heads were bowed in prayer for God’s help, the moan of an 18-wheeler’s air brakes often was heard, Caison said.
“You’d find out that whatever the team was praying for was on that truck. And whatever was loaded on that truck had been set in motion a month before,” Caison said. “Only God can do that.”
As Jackie James assessed the damage at a house near Gentilly Baptist Church one day, he had to inform the homeowner that the beams needed to shore up his house weren’t available and rebuilding would be delayed.
Two minutes later, James returned to the Baptist Builders headquarters at Gentilly Baptist Church and found the “exact number and exact size” beams there waiting, James said. James was told a team that didn’t know what to do with the beams had just dropped them off.
“After that, we started looking. We really started watching,” James said. “I told the teams, ‘You all watch and see what God will do.’”
The Baptist Builders rebuilt Gentilly Baptist Church as they worked in homes in the neighborhood. When the power was restored in July 2006, the top floors were renovated to house volunteers. When the church gym was restored later, the accommodations were doubled to house up to 200 nightly.
Elijah “Touch” Touchton, a Mission Service Corps missionary serving in Kansas and the lead electrician for the Kansas-Nebraska teams, returned every month providing licensed electrical service that was desperately needed.
As teams of volunteers went into homes around the community to rebuild and share the Gospel, the congregation found they had a new relationship with their neighbors.
Dennis Cole, church administrator at the time, said the church struggled to reach the community before the storm. Afterwards, the forced demolition of Elysian Fields Baptist Church, less than two miles away, brought together the remnants of two churches in a racial mix that more closely reflected the community.
Ken Taylor, long-time pastor of Elysian Fields Baptist Church, was called as pastor of the newly formed congregation and a vision for reaching the community was set in place.
At the church’s building rededication 5 years after the storm, long-time member Cheryl Borne said, “People didn’t want to hear about Jesus before. Now if you knock on a door, people are going to invite you inside.”
“Through the rebuilding, thousands of lives were affected in ways we wouldn’t have thought of before,” Dennis Cole, now associate pastor, said. “We should have, but we didn’t.”
Lessons from the storm
When Waylon Bailey, pastor of First Covington, and his wife, Martha, look back at Hurricane Katrina, one thought haunts them.
“To this day, Martha and I will look at each other and say, ‘What if we hadn’t done this?’” Bailey said. “How would it have affected us if we had the goods of this world and didn’t help provide for others?”
The storm gave opportunity to minister and evangelize unlike ever before and because of Southern Baptists’ response, “people look at Baptists differently now,” Bailey said.
A Turner Research study conducted for the Louisiana Baptist Convention in 2012 showed that residents of New Orleans favor Southern Baptists above any other faith group.
Stronger relationships with other evangelical groups and a new respect from government officials has also resulted, Caison said.
“[The government] sees our capacity, not only in the number of units or the number of volunteers, but in the type of work we are doing,” Caison said.
Caison said the impact of Hurricane Katrina on Southern Baptist Disaster Relief was a “culture change,” garnering the largest number of volunteers mobilized and the largest rebuild project in SBC history, Caison said.
Disaster Relief units, supported through Cooperative Program giving, numbered around 800 at the time of Hurricane Katrina, but now number 1550.
“We are one of the top three volunteer organizations for disaster relief,” Caison said.
Evangelism is viewed differently now, Caison said. Today, Southern Baptists consider the whole person with physical, spiritual and emotional needs, Caison said.
Equally important was the impact made on the volunteers, Caison said.
“God worked in and through the volunteers to minister to others, but he did a work in their lives as well. They left as changed people, too,” Caison said. “They have a deeper sense of commitment to missions. Their local church involvement has changed.”
A team from Anchorage, Alaska made multiple trips to New Orleans to work with Baptist Crossroads. Youth and education pastor Michael DuPree explained why they came.
“Certainly, it would have been easier to just send money, but by coming here we show we care and, more importantly, we teach our students the importance of missions,” DuPree said. “They learn to go and do the same.”
At First Covington, Bailey sees a fresh commitment in his members to serve and evangelize. A new building added since the storm includes showers and bedding for volunteers, a commitment to continue in service.
“It was a blessed time just to be involved in people’s lives,” Bailey said. “We are thankful we were here.”