Residents of New Orleans have seen their share of wild women intent on breaking hearts and wrecking lives. But before August 29, 2005, none had arrived with the sinister force of Katrina, which left at least 1,836 people dead and thousands of families ripped apart and homeless.
But, as in every city, God was up to something good. The disaster brought national attention to the problem of underserved Americans. It demonstrated how people who depend on the Lord can do more than survive—they can thrive. And it showed a congregation and a neighborhood how they could pull together to become participants in redemption.
–Ida Flores buckled up her seatbelt and leaned back, exhausted from fright and trauma. Seated on an airplane to who-knew-where, she peered through the window and waited for New Orleans to recede beneath her … with its fetid floodwaters smelling of oil and raw sewage and, in too many places, death.
She thought of the Superdome where she had fled and then to a house in the French Quarter where she and others huddled before they learned of flights that would take them away … anywhere, she didn’t care and at this point didn’t know, as long as she and her son could be safe and dry. Finally, an announcement: “This plane will be landing in Battle Creek, Michigan.”
–Kristen Collier grabbed photos and recently laundered clothes, then headed for her Toyota 4-Runner. It was 3 a.m., but she and husband Aaron had decided to make a dash to miss the traffic they knew would clog every exit from the city.
Aaron was fresh out of Tulane’s graduate school of art. He’d contacted two neighbors—twin brothers—and invited them to flee in the night, a journey that took them to the Carolinas and eventually to Atlanta. It would be weeks before the twins learned the whereabouts of relatives. It would be months before Aaron and Kristen could return to their home.
–Jim Dover was snug in his cabin near a trout stream deep in the woods of Michigan. A retired attorney and private banker, he’d moved there to spoil his grandchildren. Like everyone, Jim was spellbound by news of Katrina a thousand miles to the south, and he thought Hey, another winter of watching snowflakes—why not get involved in the recovery effort.
Though not raised as a churchgoer, he sensed a call and answered. He had energy and a long-held attitude that “true giving is giving ‘til it hurts.'” So while New Orleans residents fled their city, he decided to move there. When he relocated, he fell in love with the food, the music, the people—and, especially, a church named St. Roch.
Little did Ida Flores, Kristen and Aaron Collier, and Jim Dover know what adventures lay in store for them. They became part of a restoration effort, and—as happens when the Lord is at the center—they received more than they gave.
Nearly four years after the storm, a newly planted congregation called St. Roch [pronounced “Rock”] Community Church (PCA) plays a strategic role in one of the city’s hardest hit areas, a community that suffered from challenges of urban life long before the Gulf winds blew. Today, despite the poverty and the crime—and even the fury of mean-spirited Katrina—lives are being redeemed.
Ben and Stephanie McLeish were among the ones to recognize that God was doing something in New Orleans. They’d been involved in Desire Street Ministries (DSM) located several blocks away, near a notorious and desperately poor housing project built on a former swamp that also served as a garbage dump and eventually became home to thousands.
Some might say Katrina’s eight feet of murky water solved a problem by scattering residents and destroying a crime-infested neighborhood declared “unfit for human habitation.” But the McLeishes saw it as an opportunity to build community and participate in God’s redemption of their city, a goal that resonated with the heart and soul of DSM. Along with Kristen and Aaron Collier, they began praying and leading Bible studies in their bright green 1897 shotgun-style house, which was miraculously spared by the storm. They prayed for the church plant.
The two couples reached out to neighbors gradually returning and sensed a need more basic than rebuilding houses. Into this city of wildly diverse faiths ranging from works-based theology to voodoo, they carried a video camera and taped answers to this question: How do you get to heaven? Ben recalls he had lost count of how many people they’d interviewed when they came across a 9-year-old African-American boy who answered simply, “Jesus.”
Their efforts began to take hold as the struggling community came together. But it was often one step forward and two steps back. Ben tells of an Easter egg hunt that was interrupted when they heard a commotion and rushed to the front, arriving in time to see one neighbor shoot another. Adults quickly ushered the children inside.
One Christmas, Ben and Stephanie were blessed with an extra $100 and prayerfully decided to spend it on a woman whose chaotic lifestyle always had her one step ahead of Child Protective Services. When they arrived with bags of nutritious groceries, the woman basically said, “Just put the stuff over there … I gotta go.”
Overwhelmed by a sense of rejection and their view into one person’s short-sightedness in the face of grace, the McLeishes sat up late talking.
“Then it came to us,” says Ben, now St. Roch Church’s community development director. “We were experiencing the heart of God. He lavishes us with gifts, and we give them only a few moments of attention before turning to something else. Here we were, both of us with college degrees and professional experience, but God was using the foolish to shame the wise.
“It also made us think about our motivation for giving. Were we doing it to earn thanks and praise? Or were we doing it out of obedience to God’s calling to serve? The experience humbled us in the midst of our self-righteousness.”
Ben McLeish’s journey home to St. Roch—both the community and the church—took him from the University of Georgia, where he earned degrees in social work and managing non-profits, to mission trips in Haiti, Nicaragua, and Peru. As a freshman he saw the gospel clearly presented in the lives of people who’d been radically changed and realized, “if that’s what it means to follow Christ, I’ve got work to do. Over time God prepared my heart for life and service in St. Roch.”
He says the St. Roch community and other poverty-stricken neighborhoods have been underserved and disenfranchised for years, but it took the storm to bring the problem to light. “Americans are suddenly experiencing a serious economic downturn and searching frantically for new financial plans. But our neighbors have lived this way for years. Their financial plan is to trust God for their future.”
His skills include visionary leadership and serving the neighbors to whom St. Roch’s one-on-one compassion extends. According to its website, the church’s mission is to “holistically preach Christ in Word and Deed so as to raise up godly leaders from within our community who will in turn promote its spiritual and physical well-being.”
In a neighborhood of people shattered by sin and a city destroyed by a hurricane, this translates to direct help, such as providing/teaching financial stewardship and advocating for the neighborhood:
- Only 15 percent of residents are homeowners. St. Roch is helping to change that with a housing ministry to transition renters to owners.
- Church member Emily Rhodes heads a tax-assistance initiative. She and 11 others have volunteered their time and expertise to serve 130 residents, resulting in more than $100,000 returned to the community via refunds.
- Across the street sits a park transitioning from a FEMA-trailer location to a neighborhood green space. St. Roch is advocating for walking paths and athletic fields to be built to make it a viable community center.
Many church plants become self-sustaining in three years. St. Roch’s goal is 10 years, based on its model of a $300,000 budget in a neighborhood where the average income is $18,000. The church will succeed with help from individuals and congregations who share its vision but live elsewhere.
In addition, St. Roch can be an incubator to help start local businesses such as a thrift store (“We can make money from goods provided free to us while helping the community,” explains McLeish); a party-rental company (“People celebrate life all the time here, so there’s a need for tables, chairs, etc. A business providing party supplies was lost in the storm”); and a day-care center (“another way we can meet a felt need, provide an excellent product, and support families while creating a profit-generating mechanism”).
Deeds of mercy/acts of justice—a good foundation for a new church in addition to the public model of prayer and Bible study. However, in this neighborhood of jaded residents who have seen it all, some have wondered if the McLeishes, Colliers, and others who met to pray and study in their narrow shotgun houses might be a cult.
Neither Ben McLeish—nor Aaron Collier, Tulane art professor—were called to be preachers. By 2007 they needed one.
Church member Terry Watson remembers the first time he met J.B. Watkins, St. Roch’s senior pastor. Terry and Marcia were among the core group who met for prayer and study.
“When J.B. visited he wanted to know what God was already doing in the church, what the members yearned for. He didn’t want to change what we’d started. He trusted God’s plan and saw that we were following it. Marcia and I looked at each other and whispered ‘He’s our pastor.’”
Ida Flores, whose friends call her “Heart,” is the single mom who boarded a jet after the hurricane without knowing where it would take her. She appreciates J.B. and the people of St. Roch, because “they treat you with respect, like you’re supposed to be treated. Not only do they teach the Word of God, they live it.”
She says they provide solutions for families, such as a summer camp program where her 7-year-old boy learns the Bible and becomes involved in a lifestyle she hopes will take root. She is praying about whether to become a homeowner by purchasing one of the houses rehabbed by the church and offered at an affordable price.
J.B. Watkins’ journey home to St. Roch began in a military family moving from bases in Germany to the U.S. The son of an army father and a German mother, he was not encouraged to attend church, but as a youngster was drawn to the message he heard at an event sponsored by Evangelism Explosion: He needed forgiveness for his sins.
When they moved to Chattanooga, he and his sister nurtured their growing faith at a Baptist church. Later, as a student on basketball scholarship at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, where J.B. earned a business degree, he began learning what God wanted for his life through InterVarsity Fellowship.
A fan of Francis Schaeffer, he enrolled at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis but transferred to Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson after his first call as young adult and youth pastor at New Beginnings Community Church in Memphis. His wife, Stephanie, has been a math teacher and stay-at-home mom.
J.B. credits Randy Nabors, senior pastor of Chattanooga’s New City Fellowship and a PCA leader in mercy ministry, for throwing his hat in the ring when St. Roch was seeking a pastor.
The church plant in New Orleans’ Eighth Ward would be a tough assignment. The volume of need was overwhelming. “Many flooded-out churches had shut down and others were doing, doing, doing but not talking about the gospel,” says J.B. “We needed to maintain the balance, but the challenge was framing that message to residents who felt they’d been let down by institutions and people.”
As senior pastor he emphasizes 1) personal responsibility (“Though you may be poor, you can hear and act on the gospel”); 2) God’s role (“He has a perfect plan for you and your neighborhood”); and 3) St. Roch’s role (“We can be intentional about helping, such as providing a community vegetable garden or the freshly ironed clothes one resident needed for a job interview – and, yes, he landed the position”).
“Being in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, every church has some sort of mercy ministry, but their main focus is the Sunday service,” said Watkins. “We try to do an excellent job on Sunday, but our ministry succeeds more by one-on-one relationships than by programs. We try to model what it means to have a relationship with the Lord.”
Neighbors see this. Reggie Lawson, a realtor and resident since 1993, is encouraged by what he calls St. Roch’s urban pioneers. “Our children need to see people getting up and going to work, keeping their property in good condition, taking pride in their neighborhood.”
Too many New Orleans residents are still united by their belief that, since the storm, neither their lives nor their homes have been renovated—that life is the same, only worse. As a community leader Lawson watches the grim statistics—50 percent of St. Roch homes are still not repaired, 70 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level.
He’s an advocate for changing attitudes. “We try to elevate people’s thinking from just survival to building community.” His goal is to change St. Roch to a neighborhood “where upwardly-mobile African Americans will want to stay.” That’s a far cry from the St. Roch he knew as a 1960s high schooler when blacks weren’t welcome, even to visit.
Lawson recalls the history of the residential suburb, which was developed in the early 1830s. Once a farming settlement for free people of color, it became home to French and German settlers in the early 20th century, then an enclave with a predominant African-American population after the oil bust of the late 1970s, leading to a high ratio of rentals with absentee landlords.
Culturally rich, the neighborhood gave birth to jazz legends like Jelly Roll Morton and many of the city’s once famous Negro-League baseball players. Its architecture is distinctly New Orleanian with ornate bracket-work, bright colors, and classic shotgun houses.
“I’m happy [St. Roch Community Church] took a dilapidated building that was up for auction, painted it yellow, and made it a showpiece,” Lawson adds.
That bright ray of sunshine, a firmly held fist in the air to the vicious lady who once blew through town, is a joyful reflection of God’s redemptive work in action.
Carolyn Curtis is an author, editor and speaker living in Fort Worth, Texas.