What do you do when you run a homeless shelter and the city has evacuated all the homeless? That’s the situation facing Tobey Pitman, director of the Brantley Mission Center in New Orleans.
What do you do when you run a homeless shelter and
the city has evacuated all the homeless? That’s the situation facing
Tobey Pitman, director of the Brantley Mission Center in New Orleans.
As the city rebuilds from Hurricane Katrina, Pitman
is among the many local residents who must adjust to a new sense of
“We’re retooling our ministry,” explains Pitman.
“We’ve gotten out of the homeless business temporarily because there
are no homeless.”
Instead, the Brantley Center reopened last month as
a 250-bed dorm for Baptist volunteers coming from throughout the
country to rebuild churches and homes. “There’s at least a year’s work
to be done,” he says. “We just hope the interest is not lost in coming
to New Orleans.”
Pitman and the Brantley Center, just a block away
from New Orleans’ famous French Quarter, have generated a lot of
interest in the past two months.
Just weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf
Coast, Pitman and his wife, Cathy, were profiled in Missions Mosaic,
the missions magazine of Woman’s Missionary Union. As a result, church
WMU leaders throughout the country have prayed for and checked on the
Pitmans and the Brantley Center.
Pitman finds inspiration from the article’s timing,
noting that Mosaic works several months in advance on its feature
articles. “The storm did not take
the Lord by surprise at all,” he believes. “He knew we’d need all kinds
of prayer support this time of year.”
Pitman, like others, hardly suspected what was to
come when he evacuated Sunday, Aug. 27. “Cathy and I have lived here 28
years, and we have never before evacuated,” notes Pitman, who is a
national missionary for the Southern Baptist North American Mission
The Brantley Center’s staff closed the shelter on
Aug. 27 and told clients that the Superdome would be opened as a
shelter of last resort.
The Pitmans traveled to the northern part of the
state, expecting to be away for “a long weekend,” he recalls. Instead,
they were gone for 10 days.
Left behind in New Orleans were eight Brantley
Center employees. With nowhere else to go, they rode out the storm in
the center, a six-story brick building that sits on the corner of
Magazine and Common.
The next day they called Pitman from a third-floor
pay phone to report they were okay but concerned about rising flood
Pitman called Ginger Smith, a fellow missionary and
former Brantley Center employee who now directs a mission center in
Houston. With evacuation buses heading from New Orleans to Houston,
Pitman asked Smith if she had somewhere his eight workers could stay.
“That’s funny,” Smith replied. “I’ve got a dorm with eight beds in it.”
Many of her employees had left Houston when
Hurricane Rita appeared headed for that city, Smith explained, but she
had hoped to keep the center open if she could find some help.
“You’re sending me eight guys who know how to work in this setting,” she told Pitman.
When the Pitmans returned home to Pearl River –
across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans – they found their house
spared but several trees down.
Their son Andrew and his wife were not as fortunate.
The newlyweds’ new home was flooded by the storm surge.
Practically everything in it was destroyed. Today they still live with
his mom and dad, hoping to have their home renovated by Christmas.
Last month, Pitman returned to the center for only
the second time at the request of a reporter who wanted to see the
central business district. “The first time we came back, it was to look
for bodies,” he noted grimly.
While winds blew out many windows in the
skyscrapers, older buildings like the center fared well in the central
business district. Because it is in a region with a little higher
elevation, floodwaters didn’t enter the Brantley Center.
The building only had three physical signs that
Katrina was there – the loss of power spoiled meat and other food in
the walk-in refrigerator and freezer; five window panes broke; and a
patch of flooring buckled near a window where water blew in.
“Not too bad, huh?” Pitman asks while surveying the
damage to his ministry. “It’s a testimony, really, to the old style,
Old World construction.”
The business district’s design – with buildings
standing side-by-side with no space between external walls – “makes for
great strength,” he adds.
“Each one supports the other,” he says. “Hmm, wonder if there’s some theological implication there?”
Opened in 1927, the shelter was birthed through the
vision of local Baptists who sought to serve homeless men who had
traveled to New Orleans after the Depression in search of jobs.
Originally housed in a rented gambling hall, the
center later relocated to a hotel in the French Quarter before it moved
again to its current location in 1962. In the 1940s, it was named for
Clovis Brantley, a local pastor and leader of the agency that became
the North American Mission Board, who became known as the “father of
These days, Pitman is working on urban ministries
with the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Together they are
planning ministries for a host of new mobile home parks, recently set
up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency throughout the city.
“Katrina’s given us a wonderful opportunity to
provide evangelistic outreach as well as other kinds of social support
to the residents of these parks,” he says.
Pitman says he envisions chaplaincy programs and
other counseling options for park residents. “Ultimately we’d like to
have Bible studies or church services as well as one-on-one evangelism
As NAMB’s national missionary for homelessness,
Pitman challenges Christians to recognize that homelessness is neither
a new concept nor something to ignore. “The Bible is full of
homelessness,” he explains. “The first homeless people were Adam and
“God’s chosen people were homeless,” he continues. “Many of the prophets were homeless.
“They wandered from place to place,” he adds. “The
deepest theological point of that is that all of us (Christians) are
homeless. We’re longing for our eternal home.” (ABP)