By Dr. Chuck Kelley
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans, creating the greatest natural disaster in the history of the Unites States. The levees protecting the city were breached, and 70% of the city, including the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, went underwater for weeks. The unprecedented devastation included thousands killed, tens of thousands displaced among all fifty states, countless businesses shuttered, no cell service for weeks, no power and no mail delivery for months. In the blink of an eye, life changed completely for the people of New Orleans and the nearby Gulf Coast.
Today a far greater catastrophe has come. The Covid 19 virus has changed life completely for our nation and the entire planet. As of this writing, hundreds of thousands have been infected on every continent. Tens of thousands have died. There is not yet a cure or a vaccine. To limit its spread, public gatherings, sporting events, and activities as basic as children going to school and their parents going to work have been cancelled. A devastating economic impact is rapidly unfolding. This crisis affects us all, everyone in the whole world.
As I look back on leading NOBTS through the Katrina disaster, I see what could be ahead for the church and its leaders in the aftermath of the Coronavirus.
First, there is a path forward. Never in my life had I felt so overwhelmed. Faculty, staff, and students were scattered in 29 different states, without access to the campus with its library, classrooms, offices, and housing for a year. Some 100 buildings on our campus had to be replaced, renovated, or repaired simultaneously. Normal income streams plummeted. Even the once a decade process to reaffirm our accreditation happened to be scheduled in the midst of this chaos, of all years. But God always provides a path forward.
Ten days after the levees broke, our faculty and leadership teams gathered with little more than the clothes on our backs. We wept. We prayed. We worshipped. And then we went to work. In two days, the leadership team found a way to continue operations from Atlanta while the campus was being rebuilt. The faculty team found a way to continue teaching every single course we offered without classrooms, a library, or offices. I found a way to have a December graduation in Birmingham, AL. When we all came together and shared our plans, all agreed: NOBTS would entirely reinvent itself and keep teaching. The shock over the disappearance of “normal” is unavoidable. However, shock is just a fence to climb over. When you get on the other side of shock, you will discover God makes a way forward. Always.
Second, when everyone is overwhelmed, everyone knows change is both necessary and inevitable. The Director of Missions for New Orleans gathered the pastors of the city together after the storm. He began the meeting with a profound insight that changed the perspective of everyone in the room. Dr. Joe McKeever reminded the men of how often they dreamed of what they would do if only they could start their churches all over again with a clean slate. “Congratulations, men!” Dr. McKeever said, “That day you longed for and dreamed of is here!” What a terrific insight! The grief, anger, fear, and despair brought on by catastrophic loss are real and life-altering. However, buried in the midst of catastrophic loss is a seed of opportunity for a fresh start.
Without exception every church in New Orleans began doing church differently. The questions driving change were: What do these circumstances require the church to do? Who do they require us as Christians to be? What opportunities do these circumstances create? Although catastrophe does steal, often forever, the way things were, it also brings the opportunity to correct, to do things differently, to start anew. People are more ready to move ahead than you might think because catastrophic circumstances reduce the resistance to change.
Third, you will eventually discover that the future requires what you learned in the chaos of losing what you took for granted. Whether you like change or not, catastrophic events force changes upon us. What I did not realize at the time was the significance of the Katrina changes for the future. Online instruction was in its infancy when Katrina hit. Katrina forced us to push the limits of what subjects were appropriate for online classes to address. We learned to incorporate online components and non-residential instruction in teaching our whole curriculum. Music or counseling courses were thought to be impossible teach via the internet, until we had no choice. Without classrooms, we created cyber-classrooms and individualized instruction for students, located in 29 states, in every degree program we offered.
Fifteen years later, when the Covid 19 virus made it impossible for students of any kind to gather, it seemed obvious that the whole world of education, from children to adults, should shift primary delivery to the internet. Doctors, lawyers, other professionals, and business owners are joining teachers in creating ways to use the online world to keep working. Catastrophe makes you work desperately hard to innovate and create what has never been done before. Surprisingly, yesterday’s emergency innovation has a way of becoming tomorrow’s standard practice. What looked and felt like a chaotic, uncertain response to the catastrophic circumstances after Katrina was actually a glimpse into everyone’s future.
Fourth, beauty and order are more important than they seem. Few things surprised me more than the discovery of the powerful impact of beauty and order on the human experience. The Seminary neighborhood was one of the most devastated areas of New Orleans. The water that flooded our entire campus and neighborhood was saltwater, killing every bit of grass and wreaking havoc with landscaping. When power was finally restored in January, I brought a few families back with me to begin the slow process of reopening the administrative offices of the Seminary. Being surrounded by so much destruction took a toll on morale. Although it was very expensive, I decided to replace the dead grass and dirt with green sod rather than simply planting seed and waiting for the grass to grow. The effect of the bright green grass on the morale of our restart team was immediate, as in that very day. Faces brightened, men and women laughed again, and everyone had a spring in their step. Within two days, neighborhood people were coming to our gate and asking if they could drive around the campus to look at the grass. Its vibrant green broke up the gray muck of our neighborhood, inspiring hope that things would get better.
Your surroundings do make a difference. The presence of beauty and order lift the spirits, whether consciously noticed or not. Their absence discourages. As we spend a prolonged time in social isolation, focus on nature’s beauty in things as simple as a lovely day, a full moon, or the pitter patter of rain on the window. Keep your home or apartment organized, and seed it with beauty in any way you can. Add fresh flowers to your grocery list. Taking steps to see beauty when chaos abounds IS worth the effort.
Fifth, the loss of nearly everything reveals the true value of what you have left. Songwriter Kris Kristofferson wrote: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” The floodwaters of Katrina took away homes, destroyed family photos and scrapbooks that could never be replaced, and ruined or carried away family heirlooms, along with furniture, dishes, towels, sheets, electronics, favorite toys, and all the things that make a household distinctive—all gone in an instant, never to see or hold again. When NOBTS families, dressed, in hazmat suits, returned to salvage what they could, there were tears aplenty and deep, deep sadness all around. But what I heard over and over again was: “Thank God we did not lose what mattered most.” The most common sentiment was: As long as I have my family, everything else is replaceable.
Catastrophic loss brings a freedom unlike any other. Having nothing left to lose means you have everything to gain. Perceptions of what is truly valuable are altered, reordering priorities so deeply buried under the activities of a busy life that their place is rarely noticed or evaluated. Consider profound loss to be a permission of sorts, encouraging you to start fresh and put in order the issues of greater importance and those of lesser importance.
Sixth, the deepest impact of a catastrophic event will probably surprise you. If you would have asked me one week after Katrina to identify the most difficult challenge the devastating storm created for NOBTS, I would have immediately answered: the scale of its destruction. How could we rebuild an entire seminary campus at the same time? That turned out to be the easiest problem we faced. If asked the same question a year after the storm, I would have immediately responded: How do you get all those images of Katrina’s destruction out of the minds of people you are recruiting to come to New Orleans for theological education? However, five years after the storm, if you asked that same question one more time, I would have immediately answered: its lingering effects on those who went through the experience.
The impact of trauma on the human soul tends to be long and deep, in ways that are not always apparent. For example: The radical innovation necessary to operate the Seminary remotely for a year created in many a deep hunger for tradition and a serious resistance to change. Going from a tightly knit community with faculty, students, and staff all living together on campus, to being scattered across the country and seeing each other rarely for 12 months altered the fabric of the campus community in subtle but distinct ways. The enormous energy and time required for families to rebuild households from scratch, all while serving as key leaders of churches whose members were also having to rebuild their lives, was a steady drain on the spirit. The bottom line: Extended changes in the routines of life and work are likely to have an extended impact on the way people live and work. The end of the crisis will not be the end of the effects of the crisis on many of us.
Finally, the most important lesson that I learned, one that I cherish to this day, is profoundly simple: DO NOT BE AFRAID! Never in my wildest imaginations could I conceive of an event as dreadful as Hurricane Katrina. The death, the destruction, the loss, the pain, the despair: Emotions that I had never experienced to that degree before, and problems for which I could not conceive solutions, rocked my world at a depth in my soul that I did not know existed. However, my Katrina experience is not about what I lost. It is about what I gained.
I gained an unshakeable certainty that God is able to guide me, carry me, and sustain me through whatever life brings my way, no matter how terrible or overwhelming it may be. Katrina was worse than my worst nightmare, but the Lord carried me through. We rebuilt the Seminary and our lives. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of the Covid 19 pandemic ravaging the world in 2020. Do not be afraid of anything at all. Our God is able to care for you. Nothing we face ever makes Him nervous. The parting of the sea as the Israelites fled the Egyptians, the protection of Daniel in the lions’ den, the raising of Jesus from the dead: all are illustrations of this simple but profound truth. Do not be afraid. Your Heavenly Father is able to care for you. What He has done for me, He will do for you!
Written originally by invitation of the Resource Magazine of the Illinois Baptist State Association, Summer 2020