Monday, December 26, 2005

Discouraged? Depressed? Read This Before You Pray...

>A Pastor to Pastors in New Orleans

I took one of our local pastors to lunch the other day. He expressed the frustration others around here are feeling in telling our story to outsiders. "Pastors say they want to come help us," he said. "Then I say, 'What do you want to do?' And they all want the same thing. They want to come in and fix up a damaged church, then stick around and help that church get on its feet and get a great ministry going in their neighborhood. That sounds great, of course. I say to them, 'What if my church doesn't have a neighborhood?' They say, 'What's that? How could a church not have a neighborhood?' Well, it doesn't have one if no one lives there. I'm telling you it's frustrating."

Tell me about it.

We basically have two cities: one alive and strong and another dead and vacated. The first one--the living one--is the portion of metro New Orleans that suffered in the storm but has recovered and is now open for business. That includes the "river sliver" from the French Quarter to the CBD and uptown, it includes all of Metairie and Kenner and everything across the river. The second city--the dead one--refers to vast sections of New Orleans lying empty and gaunt and dark, with people gutting out homes and streets deserted and businesses shuttered. Here and there, lights glow where power company workers punch holes in the darkness. Once in a while you'll find a FEMA trailer in someone's yard to indicate life on the premises. Even more rarely, you'll find someone living inside their home. This twilight zone refers to 75% of New Orleans, all of St. Bernard
and Plaquemines parishes.

Tuesday, two men working in one of our ruined churches sat across the table drinking coffee in another church office. "We're just about through gutting out the church," one said. Their buildings had taken ten feet of water, ruining the bottom floor forever. Volunteer groups have toiled ceaselessly for weeks.

"What are you going to do next?" I asked. "Well, that's our problem," he said. Without power in the neighborhood and with no one living there, should they restore their church building? What if the government rules that all buildings must be so many feet above the flood plain? What if they rebuild and then find out their area is to be left vacant and turned into a park? What if the neighbors do not move back? In any of these scenarios, their labor and investment would be poorly spent.

"I suppose we'll close it up tight and wait to see," he said. Wait to see what the neighborhood is going to do, what the government regulations will be, what their situation will call for. Waiting is tough.

Then he brightened up. "Hey, we're thinking of putting up a tent beside the church. Lots of people are coming into the neighborhood to work in the daytime and then leave at night. But if we had a tent, we could minister to those folks. What do you think?" It's a great idea.

We discussed the possibility of merging several of our churches in that section of the city. City and parish leaders are predicting that the population of New Orleans, about 475,000 before the hurricane and possibly 75,000 now, will grow to half the pre-Katrina figure within the next five years. Five years. That's a long time to let a building sit vacant.
Perhaps some churches could combine.

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