New Orleans church thought it could
The writer has attended Church of God services since her childhood. She lives in Big Sandy, Texas, with her husband, Ed, and son Nathaniel.
By Cindy Burson
GRETNA, La.--"I think I can, I think I can," said the little engine as it climbed the mountain. "I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could," it said as it pulled into the station.
Against all odds, the little engine that could became an inspiration for children around the world.
So what, then, does a certain group of people way down yonder in New Orleans have in common with that famous little engine?
Among the group are a retired CPA, a retired NASA engineer, a commercial fishermen, a former chef on a cruise line, several college students, the warden of a parish prison, an electrician, a commercial-truck driver, the owner-operator of a dump truck, a supervisor-paramedic-dispatcher for an ambulance service, the manager of a paint-and-body shop, a schoolteacher, a librarian, a welder, a maintenance man, a self-employed carpenter, housewives, mothers and children.
These are the 100 or so members of the New Orleans congregation of the Intercontinental Church of God (ICG). These people jumped in with both feet two years ago and took on the job of remodeling and raising the funds to acquire their own locally owned church building.
During my family's tour of several Feast sites on the Gulf Coast during the Feast of Tabernacles last year, Tom Kerry, the ICG elder from New Orleans, told us an amazing story. He talked of the commitment and dedication of the New Orleans brethren and what a close family unit they had become. He invited us to visit New Orleans and write an article for The Journal about the people who had created the miracle that he believed the New Orleans church to be.
The spring holy days earlier this month were the first time we could get away to drive from Big Sandy to New Orleans to see for ourselves.
We arrived for Sabbath services on April 7. We entered the building to a feeling of happy people, all glad to see one another and with the true spirit of Christian fellowship.
As we visited with the brethren in their beautiful building, we were thinking that no church ever made us feel more welcome.
Everyone chattered at the same time. They were all happily telling us about who did what and how their building came to be the way it was.
The meal was superb, with everyone participating in the preparation. We were treated to Texas fudge (which in reality was a cheese dish). We concluded the evening by singing everyone's favorite hymns. It was so much like the old days in the Church of God.
Tom Kerry, who was the inspiration behind the building project, said the New Orleans brethren had been meeting in a part of town that was degenerating. When passersby solicited the brethren as they left their former meeting hall after services, Mr. Kerry knew they were in trouble.
They scrimped and saved for two years, planning for an eventual move to a new location.
Only a year before, Mr. Kerry had noticed and made a mental note of a building that might be available for renovation, and he had commented to other members that it might be a good choice for a church meeting hall.
But they were not ready yet. Besides, the building he had noticed had just sold and was off the market.
It had been a restaurant in the Bonanza chain, then another restaurant and bar with a nightclub upstairs with decor that suggested a voodoo-ritual house of some kind. Rooms had been decorated with beer-bottle caps and 45-r.p.m. records on the walls and voodoo sketches everywhere.
For a full year the brethren searched. One evening on his way home from work Mr. Kerry saw a for-sale sign in front of this same restaurant building. When he called the real-estate broker who had it listed, she had just walked back into the office after putting up the sign.
The next Sabbath everyone followed him over to the former restaurant to have a look at what he was telling the brethren was "the perfect building." He showed them around and asked them to go home and pray about it until next Sabbath.
The brethren soon voted unanimously to buy it and do all the work on it themselves.
So the little engine that could started up the hill.
Within a few days the congregation made an offer to the building's owner.
It was $15,000 less than the asking price. Even so, the owner did not counteroffer. At that point, said Mr. Kerry, the congregation assumed the building must really be in bad shape.
The church signed the papers in September 1998, just three weeks after the members first inspected the building. They started the project with no money for closing costs, no money for a down payment and no legal papers showing they were an organized group. But they still believed they could do it.
Al Werner, a member of the congregation and retired certified public accountant, found funding through a private group of people. One by one the things that needed to happen fell into place.
The following two years found the members working almost every Sunday, many evenings and holidays.
On Dec. 25, while their neighbors were opening Christmas presents, they worked in 20-degree weather (unusual for New Orleans, to say the least) with no heat while changing out the ceiling joist. Nearly all of the studs had to be removed. The studs in the center kitchen wall were not even touching the ground.
They tore down two buildings at other locations for materials. These supplied enough material for a full year of work.
To supply various needs in the renovation, the members asked businesses for donations for a building project for their church. Many businesses had unsold items lying around and were receptive to the requests.
The members said that, oddly enough, the businessmen donors never asked them what they believed, and, since donations can be used as a tax deduction, the effort netted $56,000 in building materials.
They had nail-pulling parties. Each Sunday one lady would prepare food, and everyone else would work on the building.
The lighting fixtures were donated to the church by an electrical contractor. A building-supply company donated a percentage of material above what the church purchased. The rough-hewn wooden posts were wrapped in drywall and painted. Ceramic tiles were donated, and Laurie Null (who had never laid tile before) did a beautiful job of finishing the floor.
They built gold and white frames for huge mirrors that a previous owner had left behind. One lady who said she was Catholic "to the marrow of [her] bones" said she believed in what the church was doing so strongly that she donated $1,000, then another $1,000 and then another $500. A member whose wife is not in a Church of God donated a beautiful picture.
Rising to the occasion
No one had a background in contracting, but everybody helped with the building plans. George Thompson, the retired draftsman, drew up blueprints, and off they went.
Harold Alfred, who did the plumbing, is a retired welder and had never plumbed before, proving the point that you are never too old to learn.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might. That proverb applies to what Laurie Null did for the building. She learned how to accomplish several new things. She had never laid ceramic tile, but she did a great job.
She made the drapes and two complicated pieces of woodwork. One was an intricate copy of the Lord's Prayer. From one piece of wood she cut out each word individually. This piece would be difficult for an experienced woodworker. Her patience paid off.
She also cut out the church seal for the podium. She looked all over the area and could not find a piece of wood that showed enough character to show the continents on the world map in the seal design. She finally found it: in her own home. She used one of her kitchen-cabinet doors. The wood grain is perfect.
Mazerth "Pappa Smurf" Baggeth provided the most inspiration for the project. Mr. Kerry had performed the wedding when Mr. Baggeth married Mary, and now he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
But he was there every Sunday working as much as he could because, he said, he didn't have much time left.
When his arm gave out, he used the other one, still helping every week.
When he could no longer hold a hammer, he served food. When he couldn't serve food, he came by every week to compliment the crew on what a good job it was doing.
He did not live to see the building completed, but his efforts inspired others to say that, if he could, they could too.
Danny Ellis is the only craftsman in the congregation. He did all of the electrical and sound-system work. Through his contacts he has been able to supply all of their PA-system equipment.
Hubald Alexander, who works in construction, hung the Sheetrock.
The brethren would work until they would run out of money or material. They then would pray. God answered their prayers every time. They needed a shower for one of the bathrooms when Mike Anderson, a deacon from Hattiesburg, Miss., came up with a shower.
We found it hard to believe that everyone in the group has participated in the project for two years with no major falling-outs. They have had squabbles, Mr. Kerry said, but have worked them out.
Another member said the project's success came because everyone had enough respect for Pastor Tom to keep working together.
The same group that started the project in September 1998 observed its first Passover and Days of Unleavened Bread this year in its own building.
Were problems encountered in construction? Oh, yes. The volunteers had erected the 45-foot beams of the roof joists only to have them all fall down. They had forgotten to tie them down.
They hired a truck with a cherry picker to put them back in place one at a time.
While this was taking place, Mr. Kerry left the work site and went to work (at his regular job; he is not an ICG employee).
On his way back home later that day, he stopped by to look at the building and found that it had disappeared. It was gone!
The crane had picked up the last beam with a jerk, and the whole building came off the ground. So the crane operator just picked it up and set it over in a corner of the city lot, out of sight, and went home for the day.
The church crew literally picked up the pieces and started over the next Sunday morning. The members say the finished product is stronger because of those problems.
The congregation rolled out the red carpet for my family after we told the members here we would like to visit and write something up--and take some pictures--for The Journal.
They showed us a special slide show of the work on the building.
Now they have a structure that will seat 300 in the main meeting room; two full bathrooms and two partial baths; a mothers' room complete with one-way mirror and sound system; a complete kitchen; a coffee bar; an upstairs wraparound balcony for a reading room; and chessboards for the several chess fans in the congregation.
The children have two rooms to meet in. Eric Barilow sketched in the murals, and the kids did the painting. They chose Noah's Ark and the parting of the Red Sea as themes.
Last fall brought the church to a point of completion. The members could finally meet in the building, even though only in the smaller room. But the building still was not heated.
They cranked up a gas grill and fan and snuggled up in their overcoats and had services in the building anyway.
When you're in the New Orleans area, you need to stop and visit. If you're there on a weekend, you'll be welcome for Sabbath services.
The building is in Gretna, a New Orleans suburb, at 1763 Stumpf Blvd. Services are at 1 p.m.
You'll no doubt be given the grand tour by everyone.
The little engine that could did it in style. But what will the congregation here do for an encore?
Tom Kerry says he and the other members would like to buy the piece of land behind the property and construct a school for the children.
If the New Orleans ICG congregation wants to buy a piece of land and build a school, it may take a while, but I figure it'll do it.
When my husband, Ed, talks about New Orleans, he calls it the "voodoo capital of the U.S."
"It's where Satan's seat is, so to speak," he says.
Ed wanted to add a short note to what I'm writing here. Here's what he has to say:
"We went down there to visit one of the Churches of God. I wanted to describe my feelings from the trip. We weren't expecting anything out of the ordinary. It seems this is always when extraordinary things occur.
"It is almost impossible for me to describe what we experienced there, without slipping into dozens of dog-eared cliches. We were pleasantly surprised. It was like the good old days, a step back in time, walking through memories. See what I mean?
"The little New Orleans church was incredible. It was like something we have not experienced in the Church of God for nearly 30 years.
"These people have worked together every Sunday and every day off for two years. They have transformed a dirty, ratty old restaurant into an outstandingly beautiful--even elegant--building for church services.
"They did this without any special skills. The only special things they possess are inspiration, vision and a genuine selfless desire to make things better for someone else. They accomplished this daunting project because they believed it was what God wanted them to do. It never occurred to them that they could not do it, so they did it.
"Because of this, God blessed them with skills they did not have before. He enhanced the ones they have, and He has blessed them with His Holy Spirit.
"If you have ever felt the presence of that Spirit, and even if you haven't, you can't miss it when you walk through the door of this church.
"Regardless of where the words Church of God fall in the name of your current church, when you walk through their door they will consider you an honored guest and treat you accordingly.
"If you are ever anywhere near New Orleans on the Sabbath day, you will be doing yourself a grave disservice if you do not stop in and visit these warm and friendly and wonderful people.
"If you feel welcome nowhere else, you will feel welcome there."
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