New Orleans

A widow's thoughts on ministry, after an Ashley Madison tragedy

Christi Gibson knew that her husband, the Rev. John Gibson, was working himself to the point of physical collapse, while fighting depression at the same time.

There was his faculty work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he taught communication in the undergraduate Leavell College, including a "Ministry Through Life Crisis" class. He was served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pearlington, Miss.

As if that wasn't enough, he kept volunteering -- working in New Orleans' brutal heat and humidity -- to repair cars for seminary students and others who couldn't afford mechanics.

"John stayed busy to the point of absolute exhaustion," said Christi Gibson, in a telephone interview. "I often came home expecting to see signs that he had worked himself into the ground and collapsed."

She knew about his struggles, but didn't expect to come home on Aug. 24 and find his body, dead at age 56. There was a suicide note in which he confessed that his name was among thousands released after hackers hit the Ashley Madison website that promised to help customers arrange sexual affairs, with complete anonymity.

Since then, Christi Gibson and her grown-up children, Trey and Callie, have struggled to work through their grief. They have also tried to use their terrible, unwanted moment in the public spotlight -- including a CNN interview -- to urge fellow believers to be more honest about the pain and brokenness found in pews and pulpits.

Thundering new voice for Southern Baptists

A New Orleans preacher, preaching to a New Orleans crowd, can expect a few "Amens!" if he quotes lyrics from Billie Holiday's bluesy "God Bless the Child" while talking about God's love for sinners who get saved. But what if he's preaching at the pastors' conference before the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention?

All the people said, "Amen!"

What really mattered was that the preacher was the Rev. Fred Luter and his turbo-charged call for salvation and social change was one of the dramatic scenes that preceded his election, by acclamation, as the first African-American president of America's largest non-Catholic flock.

But there was more to this event than its symbolism, coming 167 years after the convention was formed to defend the rights of slaveholders to be missionaries. Also, his election came on "Juneteenth" -- June 19th -- when many African Americans celebrate the emancipation of the slaves.

In his only sermon during the gathering in New Orleans, Luter challenged Southern Baptists to face the blunt realities of life in a diverse and urban society. For starters, Southern Baptists in pulpits and pews must face their own sins, so they can truly identify with the lost.

After all, everyone is "an ex-SOMETHING," he said. Sin is sin and forgiveness is forgiveness.

"The Gospel can save a gang banger. The Gospel can save a crack addict. The Gospel can save a child abuser. The Gospel can save a street runner. The Gospel can change a rebellious teen-ager. The Gospel can change an unfaithful spouse," he shouted.

"The Gospel can change you and the Gospel can change me. How do I know it? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I haven't always been preaching in a pulpit. I haven't always been preaching at the pastors' conference. At one time I was too mean to live and not fit to die, going to hell and enjoying the ride. But one day I heard the Gospel and the Gospel changed my life."

The young Luter's life in New Orleans was shaped by a broken home and his rebellion ended with a bloody motorcycle wreck. This dance with death inspired his move into part-time street preaching in the Lower Ninth Ward and eventually into the ministry. Under his leadership, the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church grew from 50 members in 1986 to 7,000 two decades later.

Then Hurricane Katrina demolished the church and its community. Luter stayed to rebuild, with the remnants of his flock sharing space for a time with the predominantly white First Baptist Church of New Orleans. That partnership grew and it was First Baptist's pastor, the Rev. David Crosby, who nominated Luter for the SBC presidency, which traditionally consists of two one-year terms.

Today, Franklin Avenue Baptist has about 5,000 members and is rebuilding again, because of its rapid growth. Meanwhile, 36 of the 110 churches in the New Orleans Baptist Association are majority African American.

Nationwide, the SBC's membership totals are down 2 percent in recent years -- a slide that have been much worse without rising numbers in predominantly black, Latino and Asian congregations. Today, whites make up 81 percent of the national convention's nearly 16 million members, with African Americans at 6.5 percent and other ethnicities combining for 12.5 percent.

Looking at the bigger picture, Luter stressed that all Americans -- regardless of race -- are wrestling with a blitz of social changes that are shattering many families and communities. Thus, his sermon addressed a litany of hot issues, from sitcoms to politics, from racism to gang violence, from adultery to pornography, from homosexuality to abortion.

"Oh my brothers and my sisters," asked Luter, "what is it going to take to change our lives? What is it going to take to change our morals? What is it going to take to change our culture, our community and our world? ...

"Only the Word of God -- not the Republican Party. Only the Word of God -- not the Democratic Party. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Congress. Only the Word of God -- not the U.S. Senate. ... Only the Word of God can change the mind of a murderer. Only the Word of God can change the heart of a racist. Only the Word of God can change the desire of a child molester. Only the Word of God can change a gang member. Yes it can! Yes it can!"

Why God loves New Orleans

Wherever they go, preachers are asked to stand up and pray.

The Rev. Joe McKeever is the missions director for a Southern Baptist regional association, which is rather like being bishop of a flock that doesn't believe in bishops. This means that he gets asked to pray even more than the next guy with a Bible.

McKeever says yes -- on one condition. Before the prayer, he insists on delivering a mini-sermon he calls, "What New Orleans and Heaven Have In Common." McKeever, you see, leads the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans.

"Obviously, people in heaven and in New Orleans love the saints," he said, reached by a shaky cell-phone link in Mississippi. "Both places love a party, since heaven always has a good reason to party and New Orleans doesn't need a reason." And then there's I-10, an interstate highway that will "get you to either place really quick, if you aren't careful."

But the 65-year-old McKeever always slips in something serious. There's a truth about New Orleans he wants other believers to grasp, especially as many of Hurricane Katrina's victims prepare to rebuild.

The other reason heaven and New Orleans are alike, he said, is a "simple matter of diversity. Both places are made up of people from every nation under the sun. ... Whenever I hear people say they want to reach the world for Jesus Christ, I tell them to come to New Orleans -- it's already here."

Life is a blur right now, which is understandable since McKeever's office address is 2222 Lakeshore Drive and the shore in question belongs to Lake Pontchartrain. Before Katrina, he worked with 77 congregations and 63 missions in Orleans and Jefferson parishes and the thin arc of towns south on the Mississippi River.

Many of these churches are fine since they're in the suburbs and exurbs around the flooded bowl that is New Orleans. But some of the sanctuaries are in bad shape or ruined. It's easy to imagine conditions at the Dixieland Trailer Park Mission. After the storm, McKeever's office spent hours trying to find the pastors of his 60 missions and drew a blank, since they are scattered across the nation.

McKeever said he has been overjoyed at the outpouring of support for Katrina's victims, especially from religious groups nationwide. He is convinced that most of the help and the more than $500 million in charity donations are coming from people who acted for religious motivations. He can't prove that, but he believes it.

More volunteers from a wide variety of churches and other faith groups are poised to rush into New Orleans once they get an all-clear signal to do so. Early this week, Southern Baptist Convention leaders reported that their volunteers had already served about 2 million meals along the ravaged Gulf Coast.

When all is said and done, McKeever believes that New Orleans will be flooded again -- this time with compassion. Many of the walls that have long divided church people in the region were, quite literally, ripped down, he said.

This would be remarkable since Southerners have highly mixed feelings about the Big Easy. They consider it a strange, glorious, corrupt and soulful city, a place where demons dance right out in the open and more than a few of the saints, when they do come marching in, are drunk. As former New York Times editor Howell Raines said recently, in highest praise, New Orleans is the "one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled."

McKeever has seen that side of the city. As a seminarian, he volunteered for street-preaching duty in the French Quarter. But he said he has decided that there is more to the Crescent City than revelry, voodoo, alcohol and temptation. There are the believers in a wide variety of pews who have found their place in its unique cultural gumbo.

"Someone told me before we moved here that to be a true Christian in New Orleans was different from the Bible Belt," he said. "They said that sin was so black here that believers shine like diamonds against a jeweler's black velvet. I've frequently thought the Christianity I've seen here, far from being the weak kind outsiders expect in such a city, is actually of a purer variety for this very reason."