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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

We climbed out of the car on South First Street near the Mississippi River levee. The area is sometimes called "the sliver by the river" in that it is the higher ground that did not get serious flooding after Hurricane Katrina. We were on our way to do some work at Cornerstone United Methodist Church in New Orleans East. A little uncertain about the house number, I stepped toward the porch of the duplex apartment. Before I could get past the first step, we were greeted warmly by Rev. Becky Conner, one of the three co-pastors of Cooperative Parish #6 set up by the United Methodists after the hurricane as a way to try to assist as many of their churches and church people as possible. After introductions and hugs, out stepped Rev. Jeff Conner, her husband, and another of the co-pastors.

We made our way inside their apartment and spent a few minutes getting to know one another. We learned that one of the ministries of Cornerstone had been a computer lab. Among other things, they had held computer literacy classes for the elderly, and they had run an after-school program for children that included computer activities. When the hurricane and flood did their damage, the building was unusable and the computer lab was a total loss. A non-profit in Baton Rouge has been providing computers to organizations which can make good use for them, and Cornerstone had recently received computers, monitors, and printers, so that they can restart their computer lab. The computers arrived ready to use, with hardware and software updated, printer-ready, and internet-ready. But while the building was not yet ready for them, they had to be stored.

Today's task was to get the computers out of the pastors' apartments and into the almost finished church building. A large stack of equipment crowded the wall by the Conners' kitchen table. We loaded them into three cars, with much appreciation from the Conners who had been having to squeeze around them for some time. Having loaded, we set out to Kenner, near the New Orleans International Airport, to get the rest of the equipment.

Rev. Jeff Conner was not able to join us for this task. He had received a call about a death, so he would be spending the day talking with the family and preparing for a funeral. Although the congregations may not be fully functional, the pastoral duties continue. Rev. Charles Duplessis of Mt. Nebo Bible Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward had talked about the cloud of death that hangs over the lives of so many in New Orleans. He explained that the number of deaths in New Orleans each month now stands at more than one and one-half times as high as it had been before Katrina. Some of these deaths have to do with little access to health care and poor living conditions. Others are related to a high level of violence. He added that the number of people attempting suicide remains high. There is drastic need for clergy and churches to minister.

Cooperative Parish #6 includes three congregations that flourished in different communities before Katrina. Cornerstone is in one of the neighborhoods farthest east along the interstate highway that leads to Slidell, LA, and on toward Mississippi. Its neighborhood looks more suburban than the older central parts of New Orleans. The church sits on a large plot of land, and it has a relatively new building which has almost been completely restored and improved.

Due south of Cornerstone in the edge of St. Bernard Parish, in the town of Chalmette, is Covenant United Methodist Church, where services are already being held. West from Chalmette is the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. In this most devastated neighborhood stands the shell of the Hartzell United Methodist Church. Hartzell sits among mostly empty lots where houses were demolished because they were so severely damaged. When we visited the Hartzell site, we found a group of carpenters from Arizona rebuilding the platform on which the pulpit stands.

Along with the Conners, the lead co-pastor is Rev. James Haynes. He pastored Cornerstone for many years, including through Katrina, but planned to retire last year. Instead, he accepted the position of pastoral leader for this Cooperative Parish. All three pastors serve all three churches, and as the opportunity to re-open all three churches comes about, they will share the preaching duties for all of the churches until the Conference determines to change the assignments.

Several more computers, the cables to hook them up, and some printers were stacked at the door when we arrived at Rev. Haynes apartment. He and his wife Mildred greeted us, and we spent some time talking together. When we finished loading, we had the back seats and trunks of four cars stuffed with computer equipment. We got directions to Cornerstone and set out on our caravan. When we arrived, Rev. Haynes brought out a hand truck, and we hauled the equipment to the room that will soon be a computer lab in the education wing of the church building. Once we had completed that task, we took a tour of the building and learned more about the neighborhood, the damage done, and the process of recovery.

We also moved some furniture, mainly some desks that needed to be put into the church offices so that the co-pastors could move into them in the next few days. We vacuumed the carpet in the offices, and then we shared a meal of gumbo. Rev. Conner picked it up from the first restaurant to reopen in all of New Orleans East, a Louisiana home cooking establishment a few blocks from the church. Along Bullard Avenue, an interstate exit and the main road in Cornerstone's neighborhood, were the shells and remnants of a half dozen fast food restaurants, along with shopping areas.

Before Katrina, Bullard Avenue and the nearby exits looked like so many other roads along an interstate freeway, with bustling retail centers and the predictable roadside businesses. Now, surrounded by chain link fences, McDonalds and Burger King and other familiar chains are in various stages of repair, approaching the day that they can reopen. At the next exit to the west, an entire mall has been bulldozed, and large machinery could be seen loading and grinding the concrete remains.

Rev. Haynes explained that with each business that opens, a few more people move back to the neighborhood. Newly opened businesses mean new jobs, and they mean that some of the features of life in the neighborhood are getting back to normal. Other residents are encouraged to return or encouraged to start rebuilding when they can see these signs that it could soon be a community again. But the process is slow. People wait for money, and they wait for hope. Little by little they start hiring contractors, making repairs, and getting their lives back in order.

Rev. Haynes said that the church is making contact with people who are coming back to the neighborhood, and it makes the new arrivals happy to find out that a church is struggling back to be part of the neighborhood. Most of us live in communities where we can take for granted the institutions and services that we are accustomed to having. There is no taking for granted in New Orleans. A person can drive around on main streets for hours without finding a grocery store that is not boarded up. New Orleans is far from what it was, and it remains to be seen what it is going to be. In the meantime, churches like Cornerstone, Covenant, and Hartzell are making sure that they have some say in shaping the next New Orleans.

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