By Diana Chandler, Regional Reporter
NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans VooDoo Arena Football team, which drew many loyal fans during its last season here, gets short shrift when compared to the National Football League.
[img_assist|nid=7137|title=Ben and Cherry Blackwell|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=70|height=100]But Ben and Cherry Blackwell, founders of Lagniappe Ministries and the team’s new volunteer chaplains, see in the team opportunities for sharing family fun and modeling the love of Jesus.
The Blackwells kicked off their ministry to the team by leading volunteers in a prayer walk through the New Orleans Arena before the first scrimmage in February, and will continue to have an active presence at each of the team’s nine home games, beginning with the March 11 match against the Tampa Bay Storm.
The Blackwells assemble, for each of the home games, teams of 25 volunteers to serve as runners for media and coaches, help with post-game autograph sessions, man VIP entrance points and assist where needed. They are lining up churches and groups to sing the National Anthem.
The Blackwells will focus on building relationships with the team, reaching players, coaches and support staff by providing welcome bags, snacks, Christian reading materials and CDs, hosting birthday parties for the players and connecting them with the local church community.[img_assist|nid=7138|title=Mardi Gras Outreach|desc=Lagniappe Ministries supports the Mardi Gras outreach of Vieux Carre Baptist Church by helping provide water for canines and their owners during the Barkus Parade for dogs and dog lovers. “You show love to their dogs and you’ve got their attention,” says Cherry Blackwell.|link=none|align=left|width=640|height=433]
“We have to build that relationship. We’re not going to go in preaching right away,” said Cherry Blackwell. “I hope that the team comes to know the Lord – team members and coaches. I don’t know what their relationships are yet.”
Blackwell said she is looking for volunteers to help the coach and team on practice days as well as game days.
“For travel games we will be providing snack bags for the trip for each player, and once a month we will be providing a meal for the team and staff at the practice facility,” she added.
The Blackwells founded Lagniappe Ministries in 2002, after volunteering at that year’s Super Bowl, building the ministry as an outreach to athletes, the military, tourists and others who impact the local hospitality and tourism industry. Both are self-funded North American Mission Board Mission Service Corps missionaries, commissioned by the New Orleans Baptist Association and Williams Boulevard Baptist Church in Kenner.
The couple’s outreach to the New Orleans VooDoo team is the latest of many efforts to reach the hospitality and tourism industry here. Coming up soon: The AAU Junior Olympics is set for July 25 – Aug. 6.
“We still have room for some groups to come and stay with us and help during the Olympics, as well as some preparation help prior to the Olympics,” Blackwell said. “We are planning block parties, sports clinics and worship opportunities that will take place in addition to the Olympic events.”
With compassion for the military, Lagniappe Ministries encourages soldiers through prayer and hospitality, delivering homemade birthday cakes to Marines stationed here and keeping an open-door policy at home.
The Blackwells developed a deep appreciation for all branches of the military because their daughter Melody Core is a former Marine and their son-in-law, Vance Core, is a sergeant in the Army National Guard.
Every Friday, Cherry Blackwell wears red as a reminder to pray for the U.S. military. It’s part of a national outreach called Red Shirt Fridays.
The Blackwells’ quilting square ministry, an effort to send hand-quilted 3X5-inch squares bathed in prayer to U.S. soldiers around the world, has ballooned to others Laginappe Ministries serves. She plans to quilt squares in VooDoo colors – red, black and purple – for the team.
Cherry Blackwell names as one of Lagniappe Ministries’ most memorable outreaches the couple’s chaplaincy during the 2005 Amateur Athletic Union’s Junior Olympics in New Orleans.
A teenager who didn’t win a medal called her at home before he left the city.
“He said, ‘I just want you to know God told me I don’t need a gold or silver, all I need is Him,’” Blackwell said. It was the first such call she received in the ministry.
Blackwell said she has known since childhood she would work in some aspect of ministry, envisioning herself as “the next Lottie Moon or Annie Armstrong.”
She was exposed to ministry as a child when her father, the Rev. John Vandercook, founded what is now Global Maritime Ministries, Inc.
Her family home was frequented by seafarers from all over the world, with the ministry located on the home’s first floor.
“I learned hospitality from my family. Our house was always open to whomever needed it and however long they needed it,” said Blackwell, recalling her parents’ work to always make others feel welcome.
When she surrendered totally to God at a church service during her senior year in high school, her life changed.
“On that night I met Ben,” she said.
After one semester at Louisiana College she transferred to the University of New Orleans and married Ben, who earned a B.A. in music education from UNO and a master’s degree in church music from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
It is his education and career as a church music minister and public elementary school teacher that recently paved the way for her to devote all of her energies to Lagniappe Ministries, resigning her position as coordinator of community education programs at St. Charles Parish Public Schools.
He continues to teach in St. Charles Parish and is also interim senior adult pastor of Williams Boulevard Baptist Church.
“We felt like God was saying you need to make this your priority and I’ll take care of the finances,” she said. “So far He has.”
The Blackwells felt compelled as early as 2005 to work full-time in the ministry, but were hampered by Hurricane Katrina. At the time, the hurricane was the least of Cherry Blackwell’s concerns. That’s because just a year earlier, she developed a stress-related illness that 15 physicians could not cure.
Her stress increased as she became caregiver to her husband’s parents, Karl and Iris Blackwell, both of whom suffered strokes within hours of one another and moved into their son’s home. Ben and Cherry’s daughter Melody was in high school; their son David was in college.
Her mother- and father-in-law lived another year or so, but Cherry Blackwell’s illness persisted. She suffered total exhaustion and endured months-long migraine headaches. During one headache that lasted 148 days, Blackwell said, she kept her head packed in ice.
The illness destroyed her immune system. She began having petit mal seizures and would zone out of reality. Driving the few miles home from a Women’s Ministry Union conference one evening in 2004, she ended up 50 miles away at the state capitol and didn’t recall having driven to Baton Rouge.
Doctors who couldn’t diagnose her case pumped her with medications, including anti-depressants, pain medications, B-12 supplements, antibiotics and sleeping pills.
“I was like a zombie, but I worked right through it,” she said.
The April before Hurricane Katrina, Blackwell found a physician who accurately diagnosed her illness as fibromyalgia. He treated her with antibiotics and anchored his medicine in prayer.
“We started each appointment with prayer,” she said. “We ended each appointment with prayer.”
The physician adjusted the medications she was already on, discontinuing some of them completely.
“God healed me,” Blackwell said. “There’s no way I could have come off that medicine without Him.”
After telling her husband last year she wanted to get well, Blackwell took her last prescription medication on March 13, 2010, and this March plans to hold an anniversary celebration of her health.
“My dad always told me if you learned from a bad experience it was worth it,” Blackwell said. “It reinforced the fact that God is very concerned about every part of our lives, even the small things. God wants to take care of our little things too.”
Blackwell had no trouble trusting God for the big things in life, but she said the illness taught her to place all things in His care.
“I had to totally submit and that was hard, because I like to be in control. I like to fix things,” she said. “I am learning day by day. Before you get out of the bed in the morning, give it to Him.”
The illness and healing have also helped Blackwell in ministry.
“It’s been amazing, how many people I’ve met who have fibromyalgia and are going through the same thing,” Blackwell said. “If you wake up in the middle of the night with some name on your heart, pray for them there.”
She uses many of her talents and hobbies in ministry, including cooking, baking, painting, woodcrafts and fostering American pit bull puppies for an area animal shelter. She involves her pit bull Chloe in ministry during Mardi Gras.
While helping Vieux Carre Baptist Church minister to tourists along the route of the Barkus Parade for dogs and dog lovers, she dressed Chloe in a black and white costume, recalling Audrey Hepburn’s day at the races in the movie My Fair Lady.
Both Cherry and Ben Blackwell participated in this year’s event, offering snacks, water and Christian tracts, and inviting the neighborhood to attend Vieux Carre Baptist.
“They’ve (Vieux Carre Baptist) seen several people come to know the Lord because of a restroom and a cup of cold water,” she said. “You show love to their dogs and you’ve got their attention.”
She encourages others to use their hobbies in ministry as well.
“If I had one dream it would be that people would find out what they enjoy doing and create their own ministry from it,” Blackwell said.
To support Lagniappe Ministries, contact the Blackwells at www.LagniappeMinistries.com, or at 504-451-9333.
By Diana Chandler, Regional Reporter