New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told a meeting of Baptist pastors in Baltimore yesterday that rebuilding churches is essential to the recovery of his flood-ravaged city.
"If you don't step into the breach and help us, folks are going to come back into the city and they're not going to have the spiritual guidance that they need to be the kind of residents that we need," Nagin told members of the National Baptist Convention at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore.
He spoke shortly after the first National Guard troops arrived in New Orleans to help police combat a recent wave of violence. Nagin asked Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco this week to send in the Guard after a weekend when six people were killed.
"Right now, the criminal element is starting to come back," Nagin said. "The drug dealers are resetting the turf, and there's not enough people back yet, so there's these wars that are going on. And, because a lot of the old dealers are gone, they're reaching down to our young men. And it's only the church, or church folk, that can make a difference."
In Baltimore this week for its annual Congress of Christian Education, the National Baptist Convention announced yesterday a drive to pair 40 churches from around the country with 40 pastors in the New Orleans area to help the region rebuild its spiritual base.
"We cannot be about rhetoric," said the Rev. R.B. Holmes, president of the annual congress. "We must be about action."
Organizers were asking churches to make a three-year commitment to the drive, called the Macedonia Ministry. It takes its name from the New Testament passage "Come over into Macedonia, and help us."
Participants are to pledge financial support for pastors who have lost churches and income, provide moral and spiritual support for pastors and members needing "specialized attention and encouragement," and help to develop a strategy to help churches rebuild.
At Asia Baptist Church in New Orleans, which was flooded out by Hurricane Katrina, attendance has fallen from more than 1,000 to about 150, Pastor Zebedee Bridges Sr. said.
"When you have a church and you don't have a membership, you don't have a church," he said, his voice breaking. "We have gone through so much it's hard to try to explain what we have lost."
Fountain Missionary Baptist Church in Summit, N.J., recently pledged $1 million to help those displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Pastor J. Michael Sanders urged his colleagues to do what they can for the region.
"We don't know what it is as pastors - and I pray that we never have to find out - what it is to have a church of three or four hundred or even more, and then one Sunday only have 20 or 25 people showing up," he said. "Our brothers and sisters are truly in need."
After speaking on New Orleans' spiritual health, Nagin made a pitch for investment. With banks in the city holding $10 billion in insurance settlement money and the federal government pledging $10 billion to $12 billion more in grants for reconstruction, he said, the city is poised to become the biggest job site in history.
"I want you, if you've got a few nickels, if you can rub those together with your friends, buy some dirt in New Orleans," Nagin said. "As you're considering your spiritual work, consider a little economic work at the same time."