Searching for salvation in New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina | Amid Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and loss, New England college students found God
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 8/29/15, 08:45 am

Only in God’s divine plan could the ravages of Hurricane Katrina result in the salvation of students on New England college campuses. That’s the testimony of two mission-minded men who don’t pretend to understand how God works things for His glory but are grateful to have been part of building trust and faith in the wake of the storm that devastated New Orleans 10 years ago today.

In the New Orleans neighborhood of Gentilly, so much more than homes has been built since Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city on Aug. 29, 2005. But a confluence of events, including the tragedy of the storm, created a formula for building relationships into which the gospel could be poured.

“It was kind of ‘God uses all things for His glory.’ It was nothing we planned but a convergence of things,” said Tom Brink, director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Serve Up New England, a missions outreach of the college campus ministry.

Since March 2006, Brink and Serve Up New England have brought 10,000 students to New Orleans and Gentilly Baptist Church, which houses and feeds them. Those trips have dramatically impacted InterVarsity’s ministry on New England’s college campuses, with the number of students placing their faith in Christ tripling in the last decade.

For Ken Taylor, pastor of Gentilly Baptist Church, the students’ service has given him a literal foot in the door of his neighbors’ homes and countless opportunities to share the gospel.

Both men recognize they have been swept up by a plan not of their making.

Nothing spared

In the days leading up to the storm’s landfall, Taylor was serving as pastor of Elysian Fields Baptist Church, a congregation in the throes of an exciting remodeling campaign. The 100-member congregation in the racially mixed neighborhood was looking forward to what God was going to do in their midst.

But on Saturday, Aug. 27, the day the church would have celebrated the birthday of its oldest member and officially kicked-off the remodeling fundraiser, members were readying to escape the Category 5 hurricane headed their way.

Taylor had never evacuated before. A sense of responsibility to his congregation (and an admittedly adventurous bent) always kept the pastor home when each new “Big One” threatened the Big Easy. But Katrina was not to be mocked. With rain bands almost completely filling the Gulf of Mexico and winds reaching 175 mph, the storm proved the bullet New Orleans could not dodge. On Sunday, with his family sent out of harm’s way, church members accounted for, and last minute repairs made to a nagging leak in the church roof, Taylor joined the mass caravan out of town.

The next day, Katrina pushed ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with 125 mph winds. The storm surge, already devastatingly high, forced a breach in three areas of the levy system designed to protect residents whose city rests below sea level. When the London Avenue Canal levy broke, the Gentilly neighborhood, bordered by the canal, the Mississippi River, and Lake Pontchatrain, filled with water. Nothing was spared.

It would be October before Taylor could return to inspect the damage to the neighborhood and his home on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches urban missions. The heart-wrenching reality of not knowing the fate of his congregation kept him awake some nights. It took him months to account for everyone. But none had been lost to the storm.

By January, enough people had moved back to the area for services to resume. But with Elysian Fields Baptist Church declared a total loss and the pastor of Gentilly Baptist Church still an evacuee, the two congregations merged, with Taylor as pastor. 

Over the next few years, Gentilly Baptist Church would become synonymous with gracious service to the community.

Not-so-temporary work

That service began as soon as the flood waters receded. Disaster relief crews from the Arkansas Baptist Association came to New Orleans, and Taylor, grateful to be able to put his teaching into action, opened the church gym as “temporary” housing for the crews.

Three years, one full-service kitchen, and a 70-bunk dormitory later, the Arkansas crews finished their “temporary” work. Those bunks filling the second and third floors of the church have accommodated 15,000 disaster relief and service volunteers since 2006.

Included in that count are thousands of students from 65 New England college campuses who forego leisurely spring breaks to serve in New Orleans with InterVarsity Serve Up. But the team dynamics are of God’s making, not his own, Brink admitted. In their haste to “load up buses and go down there” in March 2006, Brink drew into the InterVarsity missions net hundreds of non-Christians also eager to help.

The result was the fulfillment of the organization’s newly revised mission statement: “Advancing the Kingdom through whole-life conversion to Jesus, helping students move from cynic to seeker; seeker to follower; follower to leader; leader to world-changer.” 

Brink saw cynical students join the Serve Up team who would never have stepped foot into a church or campus Christian fellowship otherwise. After returning to campus, many maintained the friendships they had built. And on the second mission trip to New Orleans, they put their faith in Christ. Since then, Serve Up leadership intentionally creates service teams that are 50-50 Christian and non-Christian.

Foundation of trust

Each subsequent year builds on the foundation of trust laid in 2006. And incrementally, InterVarsity has been pressing for accountability from the students, challenging them to commit to the “whole life conversion”—salvation for the unbeliever or faithful commitment for the believer.

The 2015 service trips bore the greatest fruit, with 108 students putting their faith in Christ, more than twice as many as in 2014.

“The vision kept us going [to New Orleans],” Brink said. “And it changed what we do on campus. Our student groups are radically different after 10 years.”

The same is true in Gentilly, Taylor said. The storm took its toll but it was the volunteers who changed the environment of his neighborhood. Before Katrina, few people were responsive to Gentilly Baptist Church outreach efforts. But a recent encounter revealed the work done by God’s people there has made a difference.

While canvassing the neighborhood to invite people to services commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Taylor was met at one door by a woman who seemed irritated by the interruption.

“As soon as I said, ‘We’re from Gentilly Baptist Church’ a big smile came across her face,” Taylor said. She promised to attend the service.

Such is the trust that has been built over the years in New Orleans and New England. Taylor said he had no plans to create permanent housing for service crews, especially when the church learned it would have to spend $100,000 to install a fire-retardant sprinkler system in the dormitories.

But as the lives of his neighbors and students 1,500 miles away were eternally impacted by an outpouring of love and grace, Taylor knows it was money well spent.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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