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Oct 30 2009

People to People

What an incredible blessing it was! During the second week of September, I had the privilege of returning to New Orleans, where thirteen of us had represented St. Andrew’s during an inspired mission experience back in July. I asked Pastors Don Boutte and Clifford Jones of St. John Baptist and Pastor Charles Duplessis of Mt. Nebo Church if I might come and spend time with them in the midst of their ministries. I hoped: (1) that we might deepen our collegial relationships (2) that I might learn more about the challenges that their congregations and people face, (3) that I might witness to the movement of the Holy Spirit there, and (4) that together we could explore ways to faithfully practice accompaniment in the months and years ahead. The results far exceeded my greatest expectations.

The first thing I did upon arrival was to drive to the Carrollton neighborhood where St. John Baptist Church is. I was delighted to see the growth in the Community Garden that we prepared back in July. All the beds were planted and several in particular are flourishing. Tomatoes, green beans, radishes, collard greens, and cabbage were several of the plantings. Lionel Patterson, a deacon of the church, lovingly tends the garden before and after work, with people from the neighborhood assisting in its care. The garden will produce well into October and is becoming a focal point for health ministry within the community. It is also a sign of the life-giving nature of our partnership with one another.

It was quite a surprise when Pastor Boutte turned his Tuesday evening Bible Study, with its thirty-plus members, over to my leadership. I was unnerved and thrilled at the same time. We were studying Matthew Chapter Nine; the people shared their insights about the identity of Jesus, his miraculous healing power, the calling of sinners. We discussed the story of the “paralytic” and considered what kinds of forces “paralyze” us. We explored the role of friendship in faith and the power of faithful friendship to lift others. We reflected on what kind of community Jesus is building among us. I was particularly interested in how the scriptures are heard and interpreted from the perspective of people in New Orleans and what they have lived through. This led to wonderful discussions between Don and I about inspired readings of scripture and proclaiming a living Word that speaks to both our contexts.

I spent an entire day with Charles Duplessis in the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood most devastated by Katrina and the least rebuilt. Charles estimates that about 20% of the people have returned, with several generations living in some houses. Our visits here in July impacted our delegation deeply.

This time I walked Flood Street with Charles, to the church site, where the pad of the original church is still visible. He told me stories of pre-Katrina church life in great detail. He described their plans for rebuilding the church, taking me to different parts of the property to lay out the vision. They hope to build a multipurpose facility that can welcome numerous communitybased events and ministries. Mt. Nebo was always a congregation with strong children’s ministries; Charles and Thirawer Duplessis envision a renewed church with the same youthful focus. There remain many obstacles; I was again struck by how very different “hope” and “optimism” are in a context such as this. As we traveled the neighboring streets, Charles pointed at different properties and talked about the people who had lived there.

On my last full day in NOLA, Donald took me to the Central City neighborhood where Churches Supporting Churches is focusing their model of rebuilding entire communities (in sixteen square block areas) around churches. Foundation monies are helping in this vision, which includes building deeply affordable housing on church-owned lots as well as restoration of destroyed church buildings. The model includes very intentional planning with existing community residents to develop community resources, build interconnections, and revitalize a way of life. CSC Partner Congregations, like St. Andrew’s, will be very important to this process.

There is much more to report that I will post on HOPE IN ACTION – Reflections on Mission, Partnership, and Inspiration. Everywhere I went I was treated as a partner in this humble, inspired effort. Our friends in New Orleans expressed deep gratitude for our thirteen folks who came in July, and all that we shared. I was reminded that real “mission,” in the manner of Jesus, is deeply relational and never a one-time effort. We will be blessed by Pastor Boutte’s visit to St. Andrew’s in October, when we will talk concretely about our role in the continually growing ministry of Churches Supporting Churches. Whatever their shape, we will join together in the ministry of Jesus Christ, encouraging and upbuilding one another, growing in the Spirit of Christ and in faithful service. And I have no doubt that we will be ministered to — people to people — in ways that transform us!

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