Rev. Enola Lee, of the Dowey-Gaston A.M.E. Church, Madisonville, knocked on the backdoor of the Bridgewater Church “Friendship House,” at the opposite end of her block. Holding an unlit candle in one hand, she explained: “I have a candle. Do you have a match?” That question would turn out to be delightfully metaphorical of things to come. Until Enola knocked on our door, looking for “a match,” we had not met her. She lives in New Orleans and, when she’s around on Sundays, we are a mile away at our worship site.
Three and a half years ago, Enola was appointed by her Bishop to what was then a dying church. The tiny congregation, housed in an old, low-lying brick structure, was soon thereafter flooded by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. In fact, four distinct watermarks can be seen clearly on the ends of each pew. What a way to begin one’s ministry! Enola now has thirty young people, along with twenty adults, involved in the life of the church.
After that first encounter, two of Bridgewater’s ladies — one of whom is a CBF Louisiana Coordinating Council member — surprised Enola by personally power-washing the exterior of the A.M.E. church’s brick building, which was turning green from mildew. Enola then delighted us by attending Bridgewater’s candlelight communion service on Christmas Eve, before walking down the street to her own service at the A.M.E. church, accompanied by several of our members. Later, during a Men’s Prayer Breakfast at the local cafeteria, several of our guys signed up to help with disaster response renovation inside the old church. We replaced doors, windows, bathroom fixtures, window units, paint and stained the concrete where broken and mildewed tile had been removed. We realize the building will flood again, possibly this summer, and are carefully factoring that into our actions.
A Baptist Student Ministries group from Texas called to ask if we could use some help with this project. Shannon Rutherford, of University Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, had told her friend, Shawn Shannon, about it. This group arrived in mid-March and will focus, among other things, on refinishing the twenty-four pews. It had not rained for 24 days straight, but on Saturday, March 14th, when 34 people showed up to help us begin the renovation, the bottom fell out! With the rain falling in buckets, my heart sank. To be honest, I kept asking myself: “What am I doing here?” And the response that came back was: “Because I was chosen to be here.” The “bad” weather proved to be a special blessing, because it forced us — blacks and whites, skilled and unskilled, male and female — quickly to pull together, decide what needed to be done and get busy doing it. The rain also kept us from working as fast as we had hoped, which led to a decision to combine the two congregations for worship in Bridgewater’s facility the next morning. Everyone seemed to love that! While our choir sang “I Have Seen the Hand of God,” tears streamed down many faces. Funding for this project came from gifts by Bridgewater members, from an “It’s Time” missional church grant, personally delivered by our beloved friend, Bo Prosser, and from The Fellowship’s Disaster Response funds. A couple of experienced builders have looked at our finished work and said they could not have done it for less than $15,000. Our costs were around $3,700.
While sharing lunch one day, Rev. Lee told me of her call to the ministry, when she was eight years old. “My older sister caught me under the house, acting and sounding like I was the preacher. I told her God had called me to preach and she said the Lord was going to strike me down by lightning for being disrespectful! I actually believed her … for awhile. I come from Baptist roots, but had to join the A.M.E. church to be given the opportunity to use my gifts.” That’s when I told Enola about The Fellowship’s position on gender equality in ministry. I also told her we had something else in common — that I, too, when only eight years old, informed my family that I was going to be a preacher when I grew up.
In this photo below is Teri, who lives across the street from the A.M.E. church. Last year, we found Teri on a ladder, trying to paint her house. She explained, “I can only afford one gallon of paint at a time. When my daughter was only one year old, her daddy died. I now struggle to survive by working at a saloon and cleaning houses. When Katrina hit and I had to move to this little house, which needs lots of work.” Our little missional fellowship bought all the paint Teri could use, installed new wiring, took care of carpentry repairs, etc., and will soon repair her fence that was creamed by Gustav. Teri’s now giving back by helping her neighbors, just as we helped her. That’s how it works. By the way, it was my joy recently to baptize Teri’s daughter, Kaitlyn.
In this final photo, the fellow with the cap is Randy, who moved his family to Madisonville from Dallas to be near his sister who has metastatic cancer, and near his father who has Alzheimer’s. They joined our church. After teaching some of the A.M.E. youth how to use a drill and repair a banister, Randy exclaimed: “Working on this A.M.E. church building, with these people, is one of the highlights of my life.”
If you will become engaged in some hands-on project right in your church’s neighborhood, you will be amazed at its power to bless many lives and mature your mission. Disaster Response begins at home and, as my friend Charles Ray puts it: “There is no greater disaster in America than poverty.”