charity

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."