c. 2006 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) The new leader of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention toured New Orleans’ vast flood zone this week and, astonished at what he saw, promised to point more volunteers toward the region where tens of thousands of Baptist church members have toiled since the second day after Hurricane Katrina.
In a neighborhood off Elysian Fields Avenue on Monday (July 17), the Rev. Frank Page chatted with nearly two dozen sweat-soaked Missouri teens gutting a house along with a few adult chaperones.
Later he visited more than 200 volunteers helping build 40 homes in the Baptist Crossroads Project, a New Orleans effort co-sponsored by local Southern Baptists and Habitat for Humanity.
Flanking those visits were tours of Lakeview and the Lower 9th Ward, two New Orleans neighborhoods hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.
“My reaction is … incredulity,” Page said later. “It’s almost unbelievable. I’ve seen the pictures, but they cannot capture the widespread devastation. Mile after mile. It looks like something after a nuclear bomb.”
A pastor from Taylors, S.C., Page last month was elected head of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
The visit to New Orleans was Page’s first since Katrina, an inspection tour organized by the Rev. David Crosby of First Baptist Church of New Orleans.
The trip was largely a personal reconnaissance to see Southern Baptist work in the area.
Like many faith-based communities, Southern Baptists have poured money and volunteers into the flood zone. Their work began the second day after the storm with cooking thousands of meals a day for dazed homeowners. It has expanded to cutting trees off homes, gutting thousands of ruined homes and now building some houses.
The convention’s North American Mission Board estimated its volunteers have contributed more than 43,000 days of Katrina relief work this year.
Among them this week were 17 teens and five adults from Smithville, Mo., gutting an empty pink home with a “For Sale” sign out front in the 3000 block of Touro Street.
Monday was their first day of work. Dirty and soaked with sweat, they took a break at midafternoon to chat with Page, who hauled out a couple of debris-filled wheelbarrows himself.
The team from First Baptist of Smithville spent a week’s vacation in New Orleans, bunking in the World Trade Center, where Baptists have leased three floors as dormitory space for up to 500 volunteers at a time, said Crosby. Meanwhile, other Baptist churches are in service as auxiliary dorm sites.
The Baptist convention is a confederation of autonomous churches linked by tradition and mission. Although each is independent, they share a churchwide news organization, cooperate on missionary and relief projects and create a common structure to attract volunteers to work.
Thus Page’s leadership role is largely persuasive, but he pledged to use his pulpit to talk up New Orleans’ needs for months all over the Southern Baptist world.
“I have access to the Baptist press, and I’m going to use that,” he said. “I have a weekly address, and I’ll use that. I’ll be speaking all over the nation for the next six months, and I do pledge and promise to make New Orleans’ neighborhoods a point of great emphasis for our ministry.”
(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
DSB/PH END NOLAN