From City of NO to City of Yes

By Gary D. Myers

The City of No – that sure doesn’t sound like a happening place. It doesn’t sound like a city on the move . Sounds more like a place with very little opportunity.  Sounds like a place where needs go unmet and dreams go unfulfilled.

Until 2010, http://www.cityofno.com was the official web address for the New Orleans city government. Mayor Mitch Landrieu quickly changed the web address to http://www.nola.gov soon after he was elected to office. He referenced this fact in his recent State of the City speech.

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Homeless, not hopeless

By Gary D. Myers

John* struggled as he walked through the food line at Ozanam Inn. The grimace on his
face hinted of his degenerative disc problem. John was grateful for the plate of food, but he couldn’t take the cup of lemonade that I offered. It was all he could do to shuffle through the line carrying his plate. As I watched him find a spot to eat, I was overwhelmed with compassion.

After John finished eating, I went out to talk with him and hear his story. I’ve heard quite a few sad stories from homeless men and women. Some stories seem true, but others do not. John’s story is sad, maybe not the saddest I’ve heard, and I’m convinced that his story is true.

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A small investment with great possibility

By Gary D. Myers

One of the highlights of my week is serving food to the homeless and underprivileged on Wednesdays at Ozanam Inn. I learn something new each week as I serve beside other Christians and as I interact with people who come to eat.

We don’t serve out of pity. Pity would be the wrong approach. Rather than pity, we try to offer dignity, love and hope. Pity keeps people at arms length; love let’s them into our lives. Pity doesn’t view them as equals, love sees them as people created in the image of God. Pity has easy formulas for explaining hunger and homelessness. Love helps us see that there are no easy fixes, no easy answers for the problems these people encounter. Pity is not our approach.

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An old lure, yet so much more

By Gary D. Myers

It’s an odd thing to keep – a beat up old fishing lure with no hooks. It’s been with me for quite a while – at least 15 years. The lure has traveled with me through various cross-country and cross-town moves. It has no value for catching fish besides I have little time for go fishing these days. I keep the lure because it means something to me.

Here’s the story. While I was working at the newspaper in Meridian, Miss., a homeless man approached me looking for a little cash. I gave him a few dollars and talked with him a little while. Before I left him, the man dug around in the shopping cart he was pushing and pulled out this fishing lure – one of his few, rather shabby earthly possessions. He was thankful for what I had given him and he wanted to give me something in return.

In some ways the lure serves as a spiritual marker for me. In the Bible, the Hebrews often set up spiritual markers, reminders when God did something special for them. When they crossed the Jordan River they carried 12 stones from the middle of the river and stacked them up as a tangible reminder that God had kept His promise to them. The marker was meant to help them remember the lesson. And as we all know, lessons are easy to forget.

The lure is tangible reminder of what God was doing in my life at that time and what He was about to do during the next 15 years. What was he doing back then? Giving me a heart to reach out to the cast-offs of society. This work in my life didn’t start in Meridian, but living there helped me along on the journey. Growing up around poverty in rural Oklahoma, I naturally had compassion for the poor. I learned to reject the easy characterizations and stereotypes people often attach to the poor. Trips to inner-city Houston and Los Angeles helped push me along the path. But Meridian, located on a major interstate between Atlanta and Dallas collected its fair share of homeless people. There I encountered the homeless on a daily or a least weekly basis. I learned a lot about treating poor people with dignity in Meridian. I learned that you cannot share the gospel with the poor and homeless if you see yourself as superior to them. No one’s salvation costs any more or less than mine.

Caring about those on the margins isn’t always popular. Once I was approached by a man in a grocery store parking lot in Meridian. He was seeking money for food. I told him that I would buy extra groceries for him while I did my own grocery shopping. I came out a few minutes later with a bag of food for him. The man was happy to receive the food, but the assistant manager who saw me give the man the food wasn’t happy at all. He said I shouldn’t have done that. He believed that the store would be overrun with “unworthy beggars.” He thought having homeless around would be bad for business (even though I bought extra groceries just a few minutes earlier – it was at least good for business that day). This assistant manager made his proclamation loudly for all to hear, including the homeless man and several other customers.

I went on to Pittsburgh where I encountered the homeless on a daily basis near the University of Pittsburgh campus and often volunteered at a shelter. Then I moved on to Kansas City where I volunteered at another shelter. By the time I made it to New Orleans, I had learned a lot about compassion ministry. Most of all, I had become more comfortable sharing my faith while meeting physical needs.

So this broken-down fishing lure reminds me of that encounter in Meridian, but it reminds me of all the ways God has prepared me to minister to those on the margins of society. It reminds me that God has a plan and He prepared me for the ministry opportunities I have in New Orleans.

The symbolism of the fishing lure is not lost on me. When Jesus called Peter and John (who were fishermen) He said He would make them “fishers of men.” The lure is not only a reminder that I am supposed to be sharing the gospel (fishing for men), it is also a reminder of who God has called me to minister to – the castoffs, the forgotten and the down and out.

You are the Only You

By Kay Bennett, Director of Baptist Friendship House

As we move through our daily lives encountering different experiences do we realize that God is uniquely equipping us? Every person God created is different. You are the only one with your life experiences, the only one with your fingerprint, the only one who sees through your eyes, the only one with your voice, the only one who hears what you hear, and the only one with your touch.

God made you uniquely you and so His call in your life is just as unique.

A passion for ministry evangelism

As I look at God’s calling in my life, I realize everything I have experienced has led me to where I am right now. Each experience and encounter is like a piece of a puzzle. Each piece leads you on a journey. My journey and calling in life began with a desire to minister to the whole person (ministry evangelism).

We are all made of physical, emotional and spiritual parts, and even though the spiritual part is the most important, to leave one of the other parts out can leave person feeling helpless and hopeless. I feel that building relationships with people and investing in their lives is one of the greatest ways to build God’s Kingdom.

I don’t remember a time when I did not have a calling to help people, but while in college, I got another piece of the puzzle or more direction of where God was leading me.

My bachelor’s degree in counseling required an internship, which I did at a mental health center. While there, I was able to minister to people’s physical and emotional needs, but not to their spiritual needs – and that made me feel limited. I grew up in a Christian home and have always felt it is important to minister to the whole person.

Someone told me that New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary had a master’s degree program in counseling, so I went to the Seminary to check in out. I knew that was where God wanted me. Shortly after beginning seminary, God opened the door for me to minister at Brantley Baptist Center, a shelter for the homeless and a treatment program for people with addictions. My first day there was like everything I had ever wanted to do. I was able to minister to the whole person.

I often tell people I found a home with the homeless.

When I graduated from Seminary, God opened the door for me to stay at Brantley Center as a career missionary. Ten years later, in 1997, God moved me across the French Quarter to direct the ministry at our sister agency, Baptist Friendship House.

Friendship House is a transitional housing program for homeless women with children and a community ministry center. Over the past few years, the number of homeless women with children has increased. Today, families make up one third of the nation’s homeless population.

I love to watch God show up and show out. At Baptist Friendship House, I get to watch people’s lives change for the better. It is evident that only God can take someone who has nothing and take them to a place where they are self-sufficient. Only God can give that help and hope for a person to rise from their circumstances.

For example, not too long ago a homeless lady rang the doorbell at Friendship House and asked to use the restroom (finding a restroom is a real challenge for homeless that many people never think about).

The first thing I noticed about the lady was her t-shirt which had a nasty comment on it. I let her use the restroom, and then when she came out, I offered her a new t-shirt. She thought I wanted her t-shirt and she began looking down at her shirt. She looked back up at me and said, “What does it say?”

The lady could not read.

I was able to give her a new t-shirt from our clothes closet. I was also able to begin teaching her how to read and write. Allowing her to use the restroom gave me an opportunity to give her a t-shirt, which made it possible to teach her to read and write, and through building that relationship, opened the door for me to share Jesus with her. That is ministry evangelism! That is ministering to the whole person. That is my passion and my calling.

A day at Friendship House

There is no typical day at Friendship House. Everyday is different and it is never boring. Our days revolve around families in our transitional housing program and new families coming into our program. The ones in the program get up for breakfast and get their kids out to daycare or school. We then build mom’s skills and have Bible study. She either has a job or goes job hunting. She learns how to save her money. And we help transition her into her own housing.

The day also consists of people coming to our door for emergency food assistance, snack packs, hygiene kits, clothing, diapers, school supplies and other needs. We also teach computer skills, literacy skills, adult basic education and English as a second language to women in our city. We have community Bible study, health education and nutrition classes at the center as well.

People often show up at the door in crisis situations and need someone to counsel with them and pray with them.

We also have big events such as block parties, health fairs, pet fairs and fall festivals. During the summer, we have a preventative program for girls called Up 2 HOPE that encourages girls ages 8 and up to avoid destructive lifestyles and to stay in school.

We want to reach them while they are young, so they will not need us when they are older.

The bigger picture

As I look at my calling and our world today, I become more convinced that ministry evangelism is the greatest way to reach the world for Christ and to share His love. The statistics are staggering:

  • Statistics show that the United States ranks 3rd in the world with regard to lostness.
  • 500,000 American children under the age of 5 are homeless.
  • On any given night, there are 2 million homeless in the United States.
  • Every 9 seconds a woman is beaten in the United States.
  • One out of five adults in United States cannot read or write.
  • One third of our students in the U.S. ages 12 to 18 reports having been bullied in school.
  • 10 million children witness some form of domestic violence annually.
  • As many as 2.8 million children live on the streets, a third of whom are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home.
  • There is a trafficking victim brought to the U. S. every 10 minutes.
  • Today, at least 3,750 persons in the Gulf Coast Region have been identified as potential victims of human trafficking for the purposes of forced labor following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – 704 cases are in the New Orleans Metro Area alone.
  • Louisiana has the most homeless children in America per capita, but every state has homeless children.

This is but a glimpse into the reality of our world and community. But this brief glimpse demonstrates that one of the best ways to make a difference is to use the life that God has given you to invest in other people’s lives through building relationships that bring about positive change.

Let us not cut back on doing ministry evangelism in a time in which our world’s needs have increased, but let us be found faithful following Jesus example in Matthew 25. And may you take part in the way only you can.

You are the only you.

……………………………………………………………………………………………….

For more information on Baptist Friendship House, go online to http://www.baptistfriendshiphouse.blogspot.com or follow Friendship House on Facebook and Twitter.

Remembering ‘the least of these’

By Frank Michael McCormack

Southeast Louisiana never sleeps.

It’s march is heard in the gentle early morning stomp of the 610 near my house and the steady beat of pile drivers, smelled in the earthy scent of fresh roasted Folgers coffee near the Industrial Canal, felt in the rumble of drawbridges and the boom of music clubs, and seen in the silent, towering, starry cruise ship making its way downriver through the dark, South Plaquemines night.

Southeast Louisiana never sleeps.

My street never sleeps either. Late at night, while most other humans are asleep, I can sit on my stoop and see the real kings of the block on the prowl. The cats are everywhere. And in the morning, the only evidence of their activity is their paw prints on my car.

Southeast Louisiana never sleeps, but I certainly do. And the last few frigid nights, I’ve slept well under several lil’ ol’ lady blankets that, together with my heater, keep the cold at bay.

But while I forget the cold Southeast Louisiana night as soon as I crawl into bed, many in our community have no warm retreat in which to seek shelter. They are the thousands of men, women and children in the New Orleans area who spend their nights on the streets.

Homelessness on the rise

Unity of Greater New Orleans, an organization that seeks to provide housing and services for the homeless in the Crescent City, estimates that, on any given night, close to 19,000 people in the metropolitan area are homeless. Today’s homeless population is close to double what it was before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, even though overall population numbers have shrunk.

They sleep under bridges, on benches and stoops, on the river batture and in houses still gutted from Katrina’s floodwaters. In fact, this past week the New Orleans Fire Department fought a 3-alarm fire in a gutted house on Terpsichore Street thought to have been started by homeless people struggling to keep warm. And alarmingly, many of the area’s homeless are children. Louisiana ranks near the top with regard to child homelessness in the United States.

And homeless numbers continue to rise around the metro area in this difficult economic climate.

Regaining a heart for ‘the least of these’

But there’s another trend I’ve discovered of late that’s equally as alarming, if only on a personal level: Too often, my concern for the homeless and, in Jesus’ words, “the least of these” is closely tied to the thermometer. When the temperature drops, the city opens emergency shelters, fires in abandoned buildings make the news and I feel a “burden” for them. Whether that “burden” translates into specific action is another thing. But the rest of the year, “the least of these” become an afterthought to me. When people in need do approach me to ask for money, my knee-jerk response tends to be “Sorry, I don’t have any cash,” whether that’s the truth or not.

And that’s particularly disturbing to me because, at least for a brief moment of my life, I counted myself one of “the least of these.” Having grown up in the church, my experience was that, more often than not, those in need were outside and they needed what those inside had. But Katrina turned that upside down.

After Katrina inundated our apartment, Jennifer and I nomaded from place to place for a few weeks until we settled in Chattanooga. Without a home, without a job, without many clothes or friends nearby and sick with depression, Jennifer and I were met there with homes, jobs, clothes (OK, a few regrettable knitted sweaters), new friends and medicine for the soul.

In my stint as one of “the least of these,” I found some of the sweetest care from Nemo, a 70-year-old fellow “Katrina victim,” as he would say. Looking back, it’s apparent that we were Jesus to one another without really knowing it, to borrow from Matthew 25:40.

One would think that, having walked that road myself, I’d have more active compassion for others in similar situations. But too often, that’s not the case.

Up from inaction

There are some simple ways to make meeting the needs of “the least of these” a regular part of my day. I can:

Carry fast food gifts cards. Given the prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse among many homeless people, a reluctance to hand out cash is, many times, understandable. Now I don’t want to be so cynical that I never give someone money when they ask. But isn’t there a way for me to responsibly and spontaneously meet a hunger need? I think one possible solution is to carry a few $5 or $10 gift cards to common fast food restaurants like McDonald’s. If I encounter someone asking for food at an intersection, I may not have time to bring them to a restaurant myself but I can easily offer a gift card.

Carry snack bags. You can carry Zip-lock bags filled with non-perishable, pre-packaged food items such as canned tuna with a pull top, granola bars and beef jerky in your car. You can include a few toiletries – bars of soap, toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste, packages of wet wipes and combs – in the bags. People who are genuinely in need will gladly accept these items.

Turn grocery sacks into sleeping mats. Part of First Baptist New Orleans’ Care Effect ministry is to transform common plastic grocery sacks into soft, water proof, durable sleeping mats. The mats are woven together using “plarn,” yarn made out of plastic bags. For instructions, go to http://www.fbno.org/ministries/the-care-effect/caremats-for-the-homeless/.

Volunteer at Baptist Friendship House. As of January 1, 2011, Baptist Friendship House will be the lone Baptist mission center operating in New Orleans. Friendship House is on both Facebook and Twitter, so it’s easy to stay up to date with volunteer opportunities.

Make some friends. People don’t have to be living on the streets to be living in need. Whether financial, physical, emotional or spiritual, the people closest to me on a daily basis have needs that oftentimes I can meet, if only I pay attention.

Seeing things from a different perspective

By Gary D. Myers

Perspective is valuable. Seeing things through someone else’s eyes can cure our self-absorbed myopia. Perspective can help us understand something in a new way and help us empathize with another people.

In the past few weeks I have had several opportunities to see things from a different perspective. One event helped me learn more about my city, the other was infinitely more valuable – I learned something about the people of this city.

New Orleans is tied to the Mississippi River. The economic importance of the river cannot be overstated. Ships carrying all types of products from around the globe enter the busy Port of New Orleans, which is part of the largest port complex in the world. Hey, we even drink the water. The Mississippi River is the source of NOLA tap water.

A few months back, I rode the Creole Queen on a short trip down the river. The first thing I noticed is how different the city looks from the river. The oldest parts of the city are built near the water. The river was the superhighway and the center of commerce. Steps even lead from the river to Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral. I can imagine many visitors over the centuries, rich and poor alike, leaving ships and ascending those steps into La Nouvelle-Orléans. Though the cathedral has been changed and expanded over the years, this same majestic sight has greeted visitors since 1794.

Somehow, after my short trip on the river, seeing the city and sharing the “road” with massive ships and barges, I feel more connected with the history of the city. It was a fun ride.

One Wednesday at Ozanam Inn, I gained some more weighty perspective. The perspective came from unlikely sources – an unemployed man and a homeless woman there for a free meal.

Each Wednesday night about a dozen people from First Baptist New Orleans serve food to more than 230 homeless and underprivileged people who gather at the Oz. Some of the men and women we serve have jobs, many do not. Many of them spend their days and nights on the streets.

That night I mingled and talked with the people as they ate. As I spoke with one man – I didn’t catch his name – I gained a little perspective on being thankful.

He speculated that I had just come there after a long day at work. He was right. I could tell what he was going to say next before he said it. I could see it in his eyes. “I bet it feels good to have a job.” It does. Like so many others in our country right now, this man wants a job, but doesn’t have one. Why don’t I thank God my job each day? I think I should.

The man finished his first plate of food and went back for seconds. I finished my first helping of perspective and went back for seconds.

I have often seen Gloria at the Oz. I have talked with her before. She is always grateful for the meal. When I greeted her this particular day, I started with small talk.

Somehow, Gloria pushed the conversation to deeper level. Early that week we had experienced our first dose of fall weather. I can’t tell you how much I had enjoyed the cooler temperatures. Summer seemed to drag on this year. The fall weather has been refreshing. But I am well-fed with warm clothes, a roof over my head and a comfy bed. The cooler temps were not welcomed by Gloria and the people on the streets. She said that Sunday night was especially cool and windy.

She went on to tell me the struggle it is to find and keep a coat or a blanket. In the New Orleans “winter,” temperatures go up and down and up and down. When it warms up, I put my jacket in the closet. It’s there when I need it. Gloria does not have a place to store coats and blankets. She said she is able to get one free coat from the Oz each winter. When spring arrives, she gives it back. She knows she won’t be able to keep it safe until she needs in again.

Gloria wasn’t looking for sympathy, she was just being real. People in New Orleans are real. I am beginning to appreciate real. Now when my job is hectic, I think of this unemployed man who desperately wants a job. When the weather turns cold and I am snuggled in my warm bed, I empathize with Gloria. While my heart is heavy for their struggles, I am able to be thankful for the blessing I have been given. In a few short minutes I had learned to not take my blessings for granted. How’s that for perspective?

Ponder this:

Scripture: Matthew 9:35-38

Song: “Give me your Eyes” – Brandon Heath