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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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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

We turned the corner at Dorgenois Street and Fourth Street in the Central City of New Orleans, and we saw a man and woman sitting on the stoop of a house. The woman's eyes showed recognition as we realized we had spoken on another corner a block away, just a few minutes before. The man was all smiles, with a wiry build, clutching in his hands the crook of a walking cane. Their stoop was on the shady side of the street.

All along the block, and in all the adjoining blocks, we had been cataloguing the conditions of a battered and deserted neighborhood. There were empty lots where homes, churches and businesses once stood. Scattered among them were collapsed buildings leaning into a seemingly endless waiting. A few of the structures stood gutted, some with piles of debris outside, their emptiness echoing the empty promises of financial help just down the road. Most of the blocks had only a handful of residents where not so long ago the hustle and bustle of people had filled the area.

We exchanged greetings, "How y'all doing?" I explained that we were working in the neighborhood to help out Rev. Aldon Cotton from Jerusalem Baptist Church.

"Which Rev. Cotton? There's two Cottons . . . " the man went on to explain. He was wearing the monogrammed uniform of a retail worker, talking with his neighbor. He went on to tell us that the two Rev. Cottons in this neighborhood are brothers. After getting some more information from us about which one we knew, he affirmed, "Yes," he knew the Rev. Cotton whose church had fallen down in the storm. We discussed Jerusalem Baptist Church's plans to rebuild across the street from their previous location. He told us, "That Rev. Cotton is the best man for us. He's always doing good."

Throughout the day we had been recording information about a twenty-three block area in Central City, sometimes called Uptown. It is bounded by Broad Street on the north, Martin Luther King Boulevard on the on the east, Galvez Street on the south, and Toledano Street on the west. As many as fifteen churches gathered in this neighborhood before Hurricane Katrina. Now the people are gone, the pastors have relocated for a while, and the buildings left standing are unusable. Slowly some people are finding their way back to fix their houses. Even more slowly the promised funds from The Road Home are trickling through the system to a few. Others, not believing the money will ever make it to them, are finding ways to get the houses rebuilt and rehabilitated. And everyone else is wondering when or if they might sell their property and leave it all behind.

Some of the pastors in New Orleans have come together to build a vision for the future of their churches and for the city of New Orleans. They are letting their lives and ministries be intermingled so that they can be strengthened in their skills, their resolve and their hope. They have targeted certain zones in New Orleans, from the Central City to the Ninth Ward and beyond. The zones are selected because of the severity of their need in the post-Katrina devastation.

These zones used to have low-cost housing, both rental and owner-occupied. They were working-class neighborhoods, made up of families that include a growing segment of the new U. S. economy, the working poor whose toil builds corporate profits while they can't make enough money to afford what they need to get by. These are the neighborhoods that some local and outside developers would love to buy up for almost nothing so that they can make a landfall profit by creating the next trendy location for the up-and-coming professionals. There are leaders and lenders who are hoping the scattered residents of these neighborhoods never come back.

Four Shaw University Divinity School students walked in pairs around these twenty-three blocks. They looked at the door frames of battered houses to find a street address. At some locations, an address had been spray-painted on the asphalt in front of the house by one of the utility companies doing its work. The many vacant lots don't have an address posted anywhere, so the students have to count the spaces and fill in the blanks of addresses between one house and another. Here and there a house is being renovated, and occasionally they find one whose residents have moved back in. Along the way they meet construction crews putting up sheathing, homeowners packing remnants of sheet rock into trash bags, mechanics working on cars in a reopened auto repair shop, and contractors checking out properties.

One contractor in his car greeted Rev. Cotton and asked how his church was doing. As their conversation continued, the man explained that he was driving through the neighborhood to see if anyone was in need of some help that he could offer. Eventually, he took the pastor, the students, their professor, and another fellow doing some contract work to lunch. While "th'owing down" some New Orleans soul food, we discussed the needs of the churches and the community. We discussed the limits of hope in programs offered by the official political structures.

Over and over, neighborhood people, contractors, church members, and pastors have reiterated the same message: if our communities have any hope for renewal, it will have to be led by the churches. There are not any other institutions who have the vital interest of our communities at heart. And if the churches do not realize their calling to minister in this moment of crisis and opportunity, entire neighborhoods, their heritage and family ties, their accomplishments and traditions will be lost. Moreover, the churches will have failed to do what their Lord and Savior said he came to do, to preach good news to the poor. It is no time for empty preaching and promises. The good news must be tangible.

Rev. Cotton and his colleagues are working to see the strength of their relationships begin to bear fruit in solidarity and joint action. They need the descriptions of the properties, block by block, to show that they know the challenges they are up against. They need to demonstrate that they have a plan for using the funds they are requesting.

They also need this data to persuade other pastors that together they can make a difference. When the other pastors can see just how many lots, how many houses need rehabilitation, and ultimately who wants to come back and who wants to sell, they will realize that this is not an impossible and unmanageable task. And they will see that it is not Rev. Cotton or some other pastor trying to take over the whole neighborhood and shut them out. The Rev. Cotton whose church got destroyed longs for the day when all the churches in his neighborhood can share their gifts and pool their efforts to make Central City a beacon of the churches' capacity to renew, to change, to redeem a community.

So we walked on in the late spring heat and humidity. It was a good day to be outside and see the beauty of God's creation. We also were seeing the ways that human power used for domination and sin can let a thriving community become a wasteland. The God who created it all is the same one who promised to bring forth springs in the desert and to make a new shoot grow out of the stump that had been cut off. Churches Supporting Churches is working on getting the debris out of that spring so that the waters of life can flow freely and abundantly in New Orleans. They are watering that stump and nurturing the new growth. And all creation awaits the flowering of the shoot of Jesse, the seed growing secretly, the sudden appearance of the Reign of God on Fourth Street.

1 comment:

haitianministries said...

Thanks for your posts on New Orleans and the Churches Supporting Churches program. I've linked back to these on my blog so, hopefully, a few of my students will stop by.

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