Nearly seven hundred volunteers from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary marked the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by putting hands and feet to the Gospel at twenty-eight sites throughout New Orleans on August 29.
Subjects like pastoral ministry, missions, and evangelism were not taught in the classroom on this day, but in the city. Real-world training took place in hard-hit areas like the Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish, and the seminary's own Gentilly neighborhood. The volunteers' work was a message of love, hope, and God's grace — a hug for the hurting city.
Groups gutted homes, chopped waist-high weeds, worked on churches, and prayed. Roving counseling and evangelism teams also walked through neighborhoods offering hope, encouragement, and a Gospel witness not only in English, but in Spanish as well. Most of all, the groups illustrated the love of God in word and in deed.
Teams went out in groups of ten to fifteen people wearing bright yellow-green shirts imprinted with the day's theme — "NOBTS: Rebuilding New Orleans in Jesus' Name."
NOBTS urban missions professor Ken Taylor, co-organizer of the service project, said he hopes the day will help the seminary community see how widespread the hurricane devastation is.
"Hopefully, [seminary] people will develop a passion for getting out and ministering and seeing what a difference it makes," Taylor said.
"Getting the students out and letting them get the flavor of the needs in the city and what God is doing was one of our main goals," he said. "Students just got in there and worked and realized that they were doing it for the Lord. I was amazed and pleased with the student participation."
The day began with disaster relief training in the seminary's Leavell Chapel. At 1 p.m., after a meal provided by a Louisiana disaster relief feeding unit, the volunteers moved out into the city.
One seminary group started the day early working at Habitat for Humanity's Baptist Crossroads site in the Upper Ninth Ward. The group experienced the unique treat of meeting and praying with President George W. Bush.
"Our Katrina Ministry Day was a great opportunity for our seminary family to be a living illustration of the love of God," said NOBTS President Chuck Kelley, who visited many of the worksites during the day. "With so many New Orleans neighborhoods still in ruins, you understand why it is difficult for many to believe in the love of God. We intend to be evidence to the contrary. God does love the people of New Orleans, and we are here to demonstrate the reality of that love in tangible ways.
"After thirty-one years of living, witnessing, and going to church in this city, it is becoming increasingly obvious that something fundamental has changed," Kelley noted. "A window of opportunity has opened, and God is about to do a great and deep work."
NOBTS Provost Steve Lemke and his evangelism team distributed cold water to workers as they walked up and down Piety Drive sharing the Gospel.
"You are working in this home, but that gives us the opportunity to go next door and share and witness," Lemke said to encourage the students. "We appreciate both — the spiritual and the physical work. Both are indispensable; you can't have one without the other.
"The guys are sharing with someone right now because the work being done in this home gives us the chance to say, 'Hey, we're from the seminary; we're working over here and wanted to give you this New Testament,'" Lemke continued. "From there, we can begin a conversation with that person and hopefully share the Gospel."
Through the witness of the evangelism team, a worker in one of the neighboring homes gave his life to Christ.
Throughout the city, members of the seminary community listened to the Katrina stories and prayed with residents. In the tough areas like the Ninth Ward, many residents were hopeful about the city's recovery, even on a hard day like the first anniversary of the storm.
"I have a lot of mixed emotions," Ninth Ward homeowner Carolyn Nogis said about the day. "It's kind of hard, but I'm getting through it. I'm glad we made it. Now we're trying to do the recovery. I'm grateful we're here, and I'll be grateful when everyone can come back in their homes."
For many students, the day had the profound effect Taylor and the other organizers desired: many expressed a new passion for and an understanding of city residents.
One seminarian, Clint Crawford, confessed he had been a little selfish following the storm. While he was evacuated to Texas, Crawford said he did not think about the plight of the people of New Orleans. He said the day helped him understand the needs of the city in a new way.
On August 29, the city was the classroom where theory was put into practice. Perhaps the words of NOBTS professor Gerald Stevens best summed up the day: "We just hope our students will catch a vision for putting hands and feet to the Gospel."
With reporting by Astasha Baker, Michael McCormack, and Katie Nalls.