Holding their keys high for all to see, thirty New Orleans families celebrated the joy of home ownership at a dedication service in August.
The brightly painted new homes in the Upper Ninth Ward — part of a joint project by New Orleans Southern Baptists and Habitat for Humanity known as the Baptist Crossroads Project — and the smiles of the new owners offered a message of hope in the battered city just days before the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina: "New Orleans is coming back."
"This is ... an investment of our blood, our sweat, and our tears as an endowment to hard-working families in this community to lift them to a new level of economic stability and give them a stake in the community," said David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans.
Along with the homes, each new homeowner received a new washer and dryer from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco's office. Landscaping and road repaving grants have also been secured to begin developing the new community.
The dedication ceremony marked the culmination of a two-year journey. The idea of building homes in the city's Upper Ninth Ward first came to Crosby in 2004 — long before Katrina.
During a 2004 prayer breakfast, Crosby heard Mayor Ray Nagin say that "home ownership is the most important factor in lifting a family out of poverty." The idea rang true to Crosby. But how could a church help tackle an issue like this?
Crosby prayed for God's guidance.
Crosby meditated on Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan recorded in Luke 10:30-37. In the passage, Jesus instructs the teacher of the law to do as the Samaritan had done. If the church began building homes, Crosby wanted to make sure they didn't merely do something good — God had to get the credit. He wanted the church to witness in word and in deed. Most of all, Crosby wanted to see people come to know Christ.
With God's leading, Crosby and First Baptist Church pursued the idea of building forty new homes in the name of Christ.
Grant money came first from Baptist Community Ministries (BCM), a private grantmaking foundation committed to a healthier New Orleans. With a $1.5 million matching grant from BCM, the Baptist Crossroads Foundation approached Habitat for Humanity. They quickly jumped on board. The joint effort — dubbed the Baptist Crossroads Project — called for the construction of forty homes during the summer of 2006.
Crosby and the Baptist Crossroads Foundation planned to announce the ambitious plan in a press conference with Mayor Nagin in September 2005. Katrina hit just weeks before that announcement could be made. The city suddenly faced even more housing needs. First Baptist Church immediately began ministering to the needs of the city — providing food and gutting homes.
But instead of putting the Baptist Crossroads Project off, Crosby and Jim Pate of New Orleans Habitat continued with the plan. Construction began on June 5. Over the summer, some twenty-five hundred volunteers — mostly Baptist, mostly teenagers — created a new community of bright blue, pink, green, purple, and orange houses.
While each of the new homeowners worked on houses at the site — something Habitat calls "sweat equity" — volunteer labor was essential to the project. Habitat's job was to oversee construction and provide low-cost loans for homeowners; Baptists would locate volunteer labor.
The task of coordinating volunteers fell to Inman Houston, associate pastor of community ministries and single adults at First Baptist. He said close to one thousand of the volunteers came to the site through the North American Mission Board's World Changers program. Youth on Mission sent over two hundred teens to the site. Others worked directly with First Baptist to plan their trips.
When Windell Ricard accepted the keys to his family's new home August 19, he thanked all the volunteers who came. Ricard said he was impressed by the actions of the many "fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds" who worked at the site. He thanked these "young adults" for giving their time to help his community.
Crosby calls the Baptist Crossroads site, located at the corner of Alvar and North Roman streets, "the most hopeful place in New Orleans." He has good reason, too — in that general area at least twenty-six people have accepted Christ since the ground-breaking ceremony. As a lone worker prepared the site this summer with a bulldozer, Crosby arrived to pray that God would use the project as a witness to the city. The operator of the bulldozer — a man named Gary — came to speak with Crosby.
Gary shared his Katrina story. It had been difficult for him. Crosby sensed the man's spiritual need and shared the Gospel. There on site, before one nail was driven, before one foundation was poured, Gary prayed to receive Christ.
Several weeks ago a group of evangelists spent a few days in the area giving out bottled water and sharing the Gospel. Twenty-five people accepted Christ. One of the volunteers said the area was the most fertile witnessing field he has ever seen.
The Baptist Crossroads Project did not meet the goal of building forty homes in the summer of 2006, but the project was a success, those involved in the project say. God is getting the credit for the work, and people are coming to know Christ.
The project will continue. The remaining ten homes scheduled for this summer will be completed during the 2007 spring break. And the Baptist Crossroads Foundation plans to make homebuilding an annual affair. Their goal: one-hundred-and-sixty additional homes by 2008 — a strong witness to a hurting city.
God knew the needs Katrina would bring to New Orleans long before the National Weather Service spotted the storm off the coast of Africa. For that, thirty new home owners and a local pastor are deeply grateful.
For more information about the Baptist Crossroads Project, visit www.baptistcrossroads.org.