By Diana Chandler, Regional Reporter
Select convention churches in hard-hit St. Bernard and Plaquemine Parishes still haven’t reached pre-Katrina levels in numbers nor budgets six years after the storm, but are faithful in ministry and stewardship.
First Baptist Church of Venice in Plaquemines Parish will move into a new building within weeks, while the St. Bernard congregations of First Baptist Church of Chalmette and Poydras Baptist Church continue to thrive, adding ministries and baptising believers.
First Baptist Chalmette
First Baptist Church of Chalmette had 97 percent of its 1,600 resident members displaced following Hurricane Katrina, but Pastor John Jeffries has led an evangelistic thrust that garnered 93 Baptisms last year alone.
Six years after the storm, the church has about 200 members and operates at 55 percent of its budget, Jeffries said. While the church meets payroll, no money is allotted for such line items as youth programs and the choir, and Jeffries is the only paid minister.
“If we pay every bill, plus every one’s salary, that’s 100 percent [of budget]. People say ‘Well, how are you making it?’” Jeffries posed. “It’s the grace of God. God’s been faithful.”
The church is still committed to stewardship, giving 10 percent of its undesignated funds to the Cooperative Program, Jeffries said, and continuing to support the New Orleans Baptist Association.
Jeffries said he witnessed God’s sufficiency through the trials of the storm.
“Someone once said, ‘Never forget in the dark what God taught you in the light,’” Jeffries said. “I share confidently that everything that God taught me through these many years of ministry, all of it, has all proven true and trustworthy, and more than sufficient for any crisis.”
The congregation moved into its newly-constructed church building in September 2009 and has concentrated heavily on evangelism to thrive in a community still suffering loss. Jeffries estimates he encounters more people dealing with life-changing problems within any given six weeks than he encountered within a typical four-month period before the storm.
“It’s every problem imaginable,” he said, including homelessness, sickness and poverty, with people sleeping in cars and still living in FEMA trailers. “It’s just a bad situation.”
More than 1,500 families are registered with the church’s food pantry, which distributes 20,000 pounds of food monthly to 300 families, Jeffries said. This is the second summer the church has employed an aggressive evangelism strategy including a preschool, a summer camp, an eight-week Vacation Bible School, basketball camps and doorknob Gospel tract distributions.
Jeffries credits God with providing staff to help the church conduct its ministries, including summer missionaries from the North American Mission Board and the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and two New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary students.
Poydras Baptist Church
The missions emphasis Pastor John Galey began post-Katrina at Poydras Baptist Church is leading to unique ministry, such as an off-site Bible study marketed to hunters.
Galey emerged from the storm more determined than ever to transform Poydras Baptist into an Acts 1:8 church, and said he has learned that only the Gospel of Jesus Christ will change people’s behavior.
“We’re focused on reaching the community for Christ,” he said. “We’re going to go out and deliver and take the church to them. I’m passionate about reaching the community for Christ.”
Despite the devastation the parish suffered during the storm, Galey said he has discovered the tragedy was not profound enough to change the attitudes of the lost nor the saved.
“It takes more than a natural disaster to change peoples’ lives. You had seven foot of water in your house and .. you come back with the same attitude,” he said. “The only thing that’s going to change a person’s heart and transform the community is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Galey’s average Sunday attendance of 60 is about 40 less than pre-Katrina and its operating budget of some $95,000 is $15,000 less than before the storm, Galey said. Still, he’s committed to the Cooperative Program, continuing to give 10 percent of undesignated funds to the effort.
“That’s a hill on which I’ll die. It’s a hill to die on,” he said of his commitment to the CP.
The beginning harvest of his missions emphasis is a weekly home-based Bible study in rural Suzi Trailer Park. There, a nonbeliever opened his home for the study, encouraged after the church ministered to his family. A congregation member has offered to host a home Bible study targeting hunters, an idea Galey said has generated much interest.
In focusing on missions, Galey examined the church’s focus of reaching the lost, studied the community’s demographics and educated his membership on various ministry modalities, including outreach on the local, national and international levels, Galey said. He consulted successful pastors such as Dennis Watson of Celebration Church in Metairie, brought in speakers from established ministries such as the Louisiana Baptist Children’s Home, and used free resources of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary Levell Center for Evangelism to gather demographic information.
Galey said he has learned to be more faithful.
“There are a lot of spiritual forces and I can’t meet the challenges with man-made strategies and man-made strengths,” he said. “I’ve got to rely on God.”
First Baptist Church Venice
After three years of meeting in Pastor Steve McNeal’s living room, First Baptist Church of Venice is making plans to move into a new church building at 42743 Hwy. 23, the site of the previous building swept away by Hurricane Katrina. The church was completing last minute details in early August, getting electricity turned on and applying for a certificate of occupancy.
The 12-member congregation managed to build the 4800-square-feet building for about $140,000, with the help of volunteer laborers welcomed by the general contractor. The Louisiana Baptist Convention and the Virginia Baptist Convention gave the church $100,000 and $90,000 respectively, money already in the coffers when McNeal arrived in Venice in 2008, after planting a church in Alaska. Remaining money will fund audiovisual equipment and furniture for the new church, McNeal said.
The church gives 10 percent of its undesignated funds to the Cooperative Program and three percent to the New Orleans Baptist Association, and moves into its new building debt free, McNeal said.
First Baptist of Venice was without a pastor when the storm struck and the congregation of about 20 members scattered. McNeal and his wife Bonnie, natives of Biloxi, Miss., felt a call close to home and were matched with the Venice congregation after consulting area Baptist associations.
McNeal has Baptized six individuals in his three years in Venice, three of them members of the church, three others visitors who returned to their homes out of state. McNeal’s Baptismal has been the Mississippi River, an area beach and a bathtub.
“It’s wonderful,” McNeal said. “In Alaska, (for Baptisms) we had to go to a lake that was really cold, even in July. I like it down here. It’s much nicer.”
The congregation finds opportunities to help others by donating food and clothing, and was able to transport donated mattresses to tornado victims in Alabama after the recent spate of storms there.
“If we hear of needs, we usually follow through with that and make some contacts,” McNeal said. “We build relationships and let God build the church. We do have some generous folks in the church and they have supported the church in a big way.”
McNeal does not draw a salary as pastor. He’s a fireman for the Plaquemines Parish Fire Department and his wife is a school teacher.