West Texans spend spring break helping struggling New Orleans church

NEW ORLEANS–Seventy-five West Texans worshipped at Grace Baptist Church in the Upper 9th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans known as the Bywater on Sunday morning, March 12. The team, representing 24 Baptist churches from two associations–Lamesa and the Southern Baptists of the Permian Basin–along with the Basin Baptist Network, gave a needed boost to the New Orleans church.

Last September, Hurricane Katrina displaced all five of the church’s deacons and about 75 percent of the congregation. The changes have been hard, but hope looms, the pastor said, thanks to a changing neighborhood and Southern Baptist missions volunteers like the Texans, many of whom spent their spring break laboring in the name of Jesus.

Bill Rogers has been the pastor of Grace for 29 years and his father-in-law, Leslie Scharfenstein, was the pastor before him for 36 years. During these two pastorates, the Bywater neighborhood, so named in the 1940s because of its proximity to the Mississippi River and the canal, has experienced many changes.

Before Hurricane Betsy destroyed the community in 1965, blue-collar whites lived there; after the storm, a majority of the white community moved to St. Bernard Parish and the homes became subsidized rental property for a poorer, mostly black community. In recent years, Bywater became a historic district, and interest rekindled in home ownership, but this brought another transition in the mid 1990s. The bohemian culture, known for attracting disenchanted people wanting to live alternative lifestyles, became a growing segment of the community, creating a proverbial gumbo with one of the poorest segments of New Orleans. The area is known for its art and homosexuality, and underperforming schools, drugs and multiple murders plague it.

Months after Katrina, the schools remain closed with little hope of reopening but murders no longer dominate the news. Rogers said the neighborhood was only about 6 percent children and youth before the storm. The church averaged approximately 70 attenders pre-Katrina, with the majority of the families coming from St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans. Associate Pastor Charlie Dale said since the storm he is seeing more families with young children moving into the neighborhood.

Both pastors, with the support of the Texans and others, have a renewed sense of economic and spiritual hope for their community.

“This area, since most of it did not flood, is called the ‘Sliver on the River,'” Rogers said. “This is going to be a land of opportunity.”

While the Texans were painting, hanging sheetrock and wiring new air conditioning units, the mail arrived with more encouragement to Rogers in the form of a $1,500 check from an Arkansas church. Rogers is a retired parole officer, but his retirement checks have not arrived since the first of the year.

Not only did the team do manual labor during its week at Grace Baptist, but also they went door to door and invited people to the church for an evangelistic event that promised 200 pounds of boiled crawfish.

Team leader John Taylor, pastor at Kingston Avenue Baptist Church in Odessa, said prior to the event, “I hope a lot of people come because I don’t think many of us from Texas are going to eat a lot of crawfish.”

Josh Lomax, an Odessa teenager, said the trip “has reassured me of why I surrendered to the ministry this past year at church camp, to do [ministries] like this.”

“I was just so excited to get down here and get my hands dirty, then I found out I could go door to door and actually meet the people,” Texan Grant Kellar said. “I really wanted to do that and show the people of New Orleans that there are people who care about what’s happening to them.”

One of the people that the team met this week was Tracey, a roofer who professed faith in Christ, yet was struggling with smoking marijuana.

Kellar said, “He was trying to get his life together. We talked to him, gave him a tract and prayed for him. His church was destroyed, so he was looking for a place to go. We told him that Grace was open and that there were good people to talk to him and care for him.”

“This is an opportunity for our church to get a practical view of domestic missions,” said Ivy Shelton, pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Odessa. “It is an opportunity for people to see in a very practical way how to serve others and to see what the gospel means. You can tell people about the gospel all day long, but this is a way to put hands and feet to it.”

Texan Correspondent
Keith Manuel
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