I’ll say this for Vieux Carre Baptist Church—they really know how to break in a new pastor. I started in late January, just a few weeks before Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. One week after Mardi Gras, sickness swept through the church (we thought it was the flu). And two weeks after that, mission teams for the entire year cancelled over the course of three days and we posted a sign on the door cancelling all services indefinitely. All of my hopes for this first year, everything I had planned, cancelled as the medical community discovered that New Orleans had experienced massive community spread of the virus and the city shut down, the French Quarter deserted. While many of our members fought through illness, anxiety, and job loss; while the homeless were being sent to hotels throughout the city; while preachers in sackcloth and ashes walked empty French Quarter streets proclaiming the end of the world come—the whole landscape of our ministry changed. It happens so often in my life—the Lord changing my plans entirely—I should have expected this first year not to go as expected.
But God is faithful to this little church. That’s what I’m learning day by day. He’s faithful to sustain us, and he’s faithful to place good works before us, to walk in them. Some who had lost jobs provided childcare for those who were now working long days with children at home. We started services online, and a Wednesday night devotional through the book of James to seek joy in the midst of suffering. Small group meetings in the park; preaching, singing, even responsive readings to a screen. Conversations on porches and through windows, celebrating Holy Week on Facebook. These things were stars, lights on the dark landscape of those months of lockdown.
We slowly figured out ways to keep working with and in our community in turmoil. Hospital visits, phone check-ins, and teaming up with other churches to provide meals for the homeless in hotels; a rejected offer to hold bible studies and services in the hotels. In the protests after the killing of George Floyd, the French Quarter visibly tensed, boards on nearly every window and door; we came to pass water and pass peace in the name of Christ.
And this, too, will pass. The church reopened in May. With the space restrictions, we can fit fifteen people in the main room, so we have people watching at home, others upstairs watching on a screen; singing, preaching with masks on, serving coffee in the streets. We cleared out a bunk room to let the seniors gather and then join the service from the hallway. In fits and starts, we restarted the shower Friday ministry to the homeless, serving food and clothes out the front door, sneaking people through the side door to take showers like we’re a Christian speakeasy.
If you’re receiving this newsletter, you are a part of what he’s doing to bring us through an admittedly difficult year. Your faithful praying, your reaching out to ask what we need, your generous giving, your partnership is changing lives in the French Quarter—or rather we are participating in what our Father is doing to find and bring home children who thought they would never be welcomed home again.
Three stories, though there are so many more (I’ve changed the names): when Hurricane Laura tore apart the entirety of western Louisiana, I asked some men who have been volunteering with us for a while if they would come with me to help, and, honestly to my immense surprise, they agreed to go with me on a four-day trip. I’m not sure how to tell you the beauty of seeing two brothers in Christ, who have both lost work in the economic downturn and been without housing themselves, working all day in hundred-degree weather to restore strangers into their homes—I’ll remember that trip for as long as the Lord gives me memory. They both came back eager to go out again. We’re set to go again in early November.
Pete was one of the first people to welcome me into the church. He told me, one of the first times I met him, of his faith and thankfulness to God, that he had been sober for a number of weeks, and he had resolved never to go back into that life. He told me he was getting older, and wanted more for his life. His dream—his life goal, after years of drinking and bouts of homelessness—was to die in his own house, right with God, with people who would mourn him. I don’t know if he knew how sick he was or not, but he died just a few months after that conversation. Sober. In his own home. A sinner saved by grace through faith in Christ, as are we all. I cried as I wrote this, and I’m not the one at the church who knew him best. We do miss him, and mourn him. Goal accomplished; he’s with our Father now, who waits on the road for all of us to come home.
John came to shower Friday a few weeks ago, bottle in hand, crying because, he told us, he had been sober for months and had relapsed. He wanted us to pray for him because he was considering rehab again. He knows the Bible better than I do, and knows the Lord, so we asked him to open the prayer. At first he was incredulous, and made sure we knew he was drunk, then he started praying: “God, I hate your guts. Or I’m just mad, mad that you haven’t healed me of this yet. This disease, this desire. Why?” We prayed for him, and he thanked us for “not hating” him, then he left. He sent me a text a few days later saying he had checked back into rehab, then silence. This week, he called, sober, wanting to come to church and Bible study to worship the Lord.
And I know all of these stories are in the middle. John could show up next week drunk again, our disaster relief trip might get cancelled. But they remind me of an important truth—our lives are always in the middle of the story, en media res. Even in death, we’re in the middle of the story of our lives, we who are in Christ, because eternity awaits. This year seems so final, but it’s not. If we celebrate what God has done, if we mourn our sin, we do so in the midst of our stories, in the middle.
And so, with Vieux Carré Baptist, we’re in the middle of our story, and it’s a story of the faithfulness of God. We celebrate small moments of victory, because in those moments, we see the kingdom of God breaking through, and we’re reminded of the end of the story, where we will be restored and raised, where we will be at peace. It’s good, in the midst of things, to remember the end, to orient your life and work toward that end, toward his kingdom come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen, come Lord Jesus.