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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A few random thoughts about the city I love

By Gary D. Myers

I’ve had a lot of small blog ideas lately about this magnificent, beautiful mixed up city that I love and call home. As I let these ideas stew, I realized that none is big enough for a full blog. Most are simple observations I’ve gathered over the years. So instead of trying to flesh one of these out, I’ll give several unrelated snippets about life in New Orleans.

The other spectator sport
The entire South is caught up in the college football season. The team located in our sister city of Baton Rouge is sitting atop the polls. I grew up in a football crazed state – Oklahoma. However the high level of passion for college football in Oklahoma,
Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania or wherever is nothing compared to the craziness in SEC country. College football is serious business here. Oftentimes it is too serious, even bordering on unhealthy obsession.

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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.

More than a game

By Gary D. Myers

Baseball is a lot like life. At times it is slow and boring. Other times all the pressure seems to fall on you. There’s nothing like the excitement you feel when you are batting or when a hard-hit ball is coming your way. Like life, baseball requires knowledge, individual skill and the ability to work with others. It’s complex and unpredictable. It requires quick thinking in difficult situations. Sometimes baseball hurts.

This summer I had the privilege of serving as an assistant coach for the Bunny Friend Eagles baseball team, a 9- and 10-year-old New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) team based at the Bunny Friend Playground in the Upper Ninth Ward.

It was great to reconnect with the game that I loved so much as a child and a teenager. All the fond memories of my playing days in grade school and high school flooded my mind. I thought about the first team I played on as an 8-year-old. We went undefeated (10-0) and won the league championship. I won’t revise history and claim that I played a huge role in that team’s success, but I did play a little.

I already knew that while learning the game of baseball is hard, playing it well is even harder. This summer I learned something new. Teaching little boys this complex game is even harder than playing the game well. During the Bunny Friend season, our team amassed an 0-8 record. Winless.

Our team was part Bad News Bears and part Fat Albert’s gang (with a mean streak). The Eagles never gained the focus needed to succeed at baseball. Moreover, they never mastered the mechanics of throwing and catching … especially during a game. As far as the situational aspects of the game, they never learned exactly when and where to throw the ball (or when not to throw the ball). If our only goal was to create a well-oiled baseball machine, we failed.

But that’s only half of the story. I joined the coaching staff to be an influence on these boys from a rough neighborhood. I had worked with most of them before in our church’s tutoring ministry, but there is something about hanging out on the playground. I really got to know them well and I got a glimpse into what life is like for these young men. Several of them have very sad histories.

Practice was difficult. Lot’s of curse words. Lot’s of fights and name calling. Lot’s of distraction and general bad behavior. Very little baseball. Most days I was at the point of utter frustration by the time practice ended. But it is the hope of the gospel that kept me coming. Jesus didn’t say go where it’s easy and go where the children are well behaved (are all the kids in our churches well-behaved?). Jesus went all the way to the cross and He sends us to the ends of the earth. The least I can do is go to the Upper Ninth Ward to invest in these boys.

I was able to connect with the boys in different ways. One conversation stands out. A little boy was talking about playing Wii, so I asked what was his favorite game. He said that he liked to play a Michael Jackson dancing game and started talking about dancing to the song “Billie Jean.” I told him I remembered when the song came out (I was in seventh grade). I asked him if he could do the moon walk. His eyes lit up and he tried it right there on the practice field.

Another neat experience came after one of our games. I had been gone for a while on my various trips (Alaska, Israel, Phoenix) and a new boy had joined the team while I was gone. When I told him to sit down in the dugout at the game he said, “You’re not my coach!” and refused to mind. He did apologize later at the prompting of another coach. I was not happy and that night I wondered if I was wasting my time with the team. At the next practice I made an extra effort to encourage this child. Not only did my attitude change, his did too. I didn’t have any more problems with him. I counted that a major victory.

Something else beautiful happened this summer — my 10-year-old son decided to play with the Eagles. That’s really how I got involved in the first place. He wanted to play with the Eagles because of our church’s connection with the team. I jumped at the opportunity and volunteered to help coach. Despite all their differences – racial, economic, social – Jonathan and his fellow team members got along well. Children have many things to teach us about the value of every person.

This summer was an investment — an investment in the future of New Orleans. It is rooted in the hope that these boys won’t end up as a crime stat in 10 years if they turn to Jesus. It was also an investment in my son’s spiritual development. He already has a missional bent. I hope that was strengthened this summer.

Some investments offer quick returns; others take a steady, long-term approach. The Bunny Friend Eagles are of the long-term variety. But the investment continues. At least six of the Eagles are attending Vacation Bible School at our church this week. And I will begin tutoring again now that the baseball season is over. I guess you could say this one is going into extra innings … and we still have a chance to win this one.

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