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12/5/2005 12:24 PM

PRC Volunteers Show How It's Done!

Times-Picayune
Sunday, December 04, 2005
By Bruce Nolan


Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Senior Pastor Fred Luter, Jr. played host to about 1,000 volunteers from accross the country in gutting and cleaning up Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans
MATT ROSE / Times-Picayune

Hundreds of volunteers from churches across Louisiana and beyond swarmed all day Saturday over a wrecked sister church deep in New Orleans' flood zone, hoping to start its healing and that of the desolate neighborhood beyond with a furious outpouring of free, cooperative labor.

By some counts, nearly 1,000 crisply organized volunteers from LaPlace to Los Angeles laid gloved, healing hands on Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, which drowned under nine feet of water from Hurricane Katrina. More to the point, they went after the church's ruined sanctuary and first floor with crowbars and power tools. In a ritual familiar to thousands of homeowners, they tossed furniture and carpet, muscled kitchen equipment out the door and gutted walls to the studs.

Donated heavy equipment bulldozed the rubble into growing piles curbside.

The workers were assembled by PRC Compassion, a network of evangelical churches and nonprofits based in Baton Rouge that sprang into existence after Katrina to funnel aid into the storm zone.

Shortly after the storm, the group began pouring truckloads of supplies into disaster areas, then offered displaced New Orleanians housing through two sites in Baton Rouge.

PRC Compassion's roots are thickest in Louisiana, which is covered with independent Christian churches. But aid has flowed to the agency from groups far afield, including Focus on the Family, the potent evangelical educational and political organization in Colorado Springs. Help has also come from the St. Louis, Mo.-based Living in the Word Ministry of evangelist Joyce Meyer, said Gene Mills, one of the founders of PRC Compassion.

Born spontaneously in response to sheer need, PRC Compassion is driven by relationships -- by pastors networking rapidly with other pastors, then hurrying help to target areas, said Mills.

Its congregations are both black and white. In their effort Saturday, they reached out to help the Rev. Fred Luter, a popular minister who turned around a dying church in the mid-1980s and who works easily across racial and denominational lines.

Now revitalized into a powerhouse congregation, Luter's predominately African-American church had begun to stabilize and reclaim its neighborhood around the 2500 block of Franklin Avenue. It invested in a new Family Life Center to shelter and occupy neighborhood children with sports and safe activities. It had begun to renovate a public playground next door. Before Katrina, nearly 7,000 people worshipped there every weekend, Luter said.

Raring to return

PRC Compassion's strategy recognized that Luter's was a key church to target as a priceless asset to its neighborhood. Helping Luter now would permit his church to help others later, said Mills.

"He wants to be here. Once he gets back online, he's going to be a machine. He'll turn around all kinds of lives," Mills said.

Saturday's effort was also a coming-out for a new local enterprise, an alliance of evangelical pastors calling itself the Greater New Orleans Pastors Coalition.

Formed out of a series of post-Katrina conversations hosted by the Rev. Dennis Watson of Celebration Church, the group has assembled dozens of black and white pastors previously not used to working together -- some even chronically suspicious of each other -- into a group that seems determined to overlook differences and harness their resources to aid post-Katrina New Orleans, Watson said.

They include names like the Revs. Mike Mille of White Dove Fellowship in Harvey, David Crosby of First Baptist Church of New Orleans and Bishop Paul Morton of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, said Watson.

Members of that organization hope to help rebuild each other's churches, "and from our rebuilt churches, we'll send out teams into our neighborhoods to rebuild homes," said Watson.

A charismatic pastor

In preparation for their day of reclamation Saturday, volunteer coordinators by dawn had pitched several enormous tents in the church parking lot to shade workers during breaks, and from which to dispense piles of gloves, safety glasses, masks and disposable coveralls.

Stacks of power tools stood ready to be seized. New wheelbarrows were tipped against a fence. There were brooms by the bundle. Joe Cobb and other members of The Healing Place, a Baton Rouge Church, stirred a massive pot of chili for 500 volunteers, served by Janice Cook and friends from New Wine Fellowship in LaPlace. That was supplemented by jambalaya, boxes of fresh produce, and pastries.


Clyde Wood, one of a group of volunteers from the Healing Place Church of Baton Rouge, joins about 1,000 volunteers from accross the country in gutting and cleaning up Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.
MATT ROSE / Times-Picayune

On arrival, volunteers were organized into teams, given a leader and specific assignments inside the church's sanctuary or its relatively new, but now destroyed, Family Life Center next door.

Volunteers included Tyresha Williams, a medical records manager from Cottonwood Christian Center in suburban Los Angeles. She is a member of the fourth relief team her church has sent to New Orleans, she said.

Nearby, Mike Simon and Maura Pine, students from Union College in Schenectady, New York, both asthmatics, remained outside the moldy church, dispensing tools and performing other chores. They were among 29 students from Union who flew down on break to help out with Katrina relief and then heard about Saturday's work project, they said.

As hundreds of volunteers took lunch breaks in shifts Saturday, Luter circulated through his parking lot in disposable overalls, greeting and thanking them, telling the story of his church and listening to their stories.

Luter now lives in Birmingham and travels the South preaching in a different pulpit each week, he said. His congregation is scattered all over the country. But next month he has arranged to preach regularly at First Baptist New Orleans and in Baton Rouge on the first and third Sundays of each month, and in Houston regularly on the second and fourth Sundays.

"The lesson of all this is how short life is and how the things we once enjoyed can be taken away in so short a time," he said.

"That, and now this: That we can do great things together if we just put aside our petty differences."