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A seminary’s rise from the flood
Gary D. Myers, Baptist Press
August 30, 2010
9 MIN READ TIME

A seminary’s rise from the flood

A seminary’s rise from the flood
Gary D. Myers, Baptist Press
August 30, 2010

NEW ORLEANS — Many of the

visible marks left by Hurricane Katrina five years ago have been washed away by

time and hard work, but the impact of the storm continues to affect New Orleans

Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS).

File photo by U.S. Coast Guard

A Blackhawk helicopter flies past Leavell Chapel on the campus of New Orleans Seminary on Sept. 4, 2005.

Despite deep pain and challenging circumstances, the seminary community

overcame. NOBTS President Chuck Kelley has seen those who went through the

storm emerge with a deeper faith in God and an unflinching, stubborn commitment

to be witnesses in the city and region.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina slammed ashore just east of New Orleans, leaving a

path of destruction stretching from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., and as far

north as Meridian, Miss.

Initially it seemed that New Orleans escaped the worst

of the storm, but multiple levee failures left 70 percent of New Orleans

underwater.

The seminary was not spared. Sixty percent of campus housing received

significant damage.

Only two weeks into a new semester, the seminary’s primary

task of training ministers was put on hold. Main campus students fled to 29

different states; the faculty was scattered to nine states.

The healing process began quickly. Southern Baptists showered the displaced

seminary community with financial assistance and places to stay. The Southern

Baptist Convention (SBC) gave the seminary a $6 million gift from its Cooperative

Program overage.

File photo by Gary D. Myers

The States Apartments at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, like the one shown here, received significant flood damage and had to be razed. In all, 92 housing units were damaged beyond repair.

“This was the greatest outpouring of grace in the history of New Orleans

Baptist Theological Seminary,” Kelley said. “At every level of Southern Baptist

life, the individual Southern Baptist, the local Southern Baptist church, the

association, the state convention and the Southern Baptist Convention and all

of its entities … everybody participated in helping NOBTS recover. This was

one of the things that meant so much.”

Kelley said he hesitates to call out any specific gift, because every SBC

entity and every state convention made sacrifices to help the seminary

community in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Even the conventions hit

hardest by Katrina — Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi — gave to the

cause. The gifts — clothing, food and money — allowed NOBTS to provide

immediate assistance for students, professors and staffers.

The seminary also soon returned to its theological training mission. Just days

after the storm, Kelley, Provost Steve Lemke and other faculty members

formulated an innovative plan to re-launch fall classes for students wanting to

continue their studies. Faculty members gathered to reformulate their courses

into an online discussion-oriented format. Eighty-five percent of the students

who had enrolled at the main campus before the storm opted to resume their

studies online or at one of the seminary’s extension centers that semester.

The storm provided a powerful affirmation of the educational strategy NOBTS had

put in place decades earlier, Kelley noted. The extension center system begun

under Kelley’s predecessor, the late Landrum P. Leavell II, played a key role

in continuing classes that semester — and the philosophy behind the extension

centers — accessibility — made the online courses possible.

As in the immediate aftermath, SBC volunteers played a key role in the

restoration of the broken campus. Churches, conventions and individuals sent

money to help begin the cleanup and renovation of campus housing. Volunteers

came by the hundreds to help clean and paint campus buildings. The volunteer

labor alone saved the seminary $2 million in reconstruction costs. The total

cost of the restoration swelled to $75 million.

Kelley said Katrina illustrated the beauty of Southern Baptist cooperation.

“If we were an individual school, I just don’t know what we would have done.

This marvelous, cooperative relationship of local churches, of associations, of

state conventions and the national convention, each doing what they are best

suited to do is an unbelievably powerful force,” he said. “It is a powerful

force in girding up the church for its witness to the world.

“It means something to be Southern Baptist and it means something to have these

cooperative relationships. We saw it in action and it literally held us

together.”

While some main campus offices reopened in early January 2006, the entire

administrative staff did not move back to campus until April 2006. By August

2006, the campus was fully operational and students and professors were back in

the classroom for a new semester.

However, the campus was not the same. The beautiful restoration could not hide

the fact that NOBTS lost 92 apartments during the storm. Only 16 new apartments

have been constructed since Katrina. Kelley identified student housing as the

greatest need facing the school. NOBTS needs between $15-17 million to replace

the lost units.

Administrators also noted a shift in main campus enrollment. Before the storm

55 percent of students attended classes on the main campus, while 45 percent

attended an extension center.

Now the numbers are reversed, with 45 percent of

students attending the main campus.

Kelley said the numbers are understandable due to the seminary’s commitment to

make theological education more accessible. Giving students more options is not

simply a reaction to Katrina, but a continuation of the strategy launched under

Landrum Leavell. It is also a response to churches, associations and state

conventions looking for ways to train ministers as they serve.

File photo by U.S. Coast Guard

Housing units near the front of New Orleans Seminary, shown here, received 2-3 feet of water. Near the back of campus, floodwaters reached 8-9 feet.

The key issue is funding, Kelley said. “The funding formula for the Southern

Baptist Convention is rooted in the traditional model of theological education.

It is designed to give almost all funding for traditional on-campus theological

education and little or no funding for everything that is not on the campus,”

he said.

“Before Katrina, we were able to make it work; it’s just harder to make it work

with that shift in our student body from 55 percent on campus to 45 percent on

campus. That means less funding. Ultimately one of the biggest legacies of

Katrina is the reduction in funding that came from having a larger off-campus

student body than we do on campus.”

Many of the lessons learned by the seminary community, however, center around

NOBTS’ place in the city of New Orleans. Kelley sees renewed gospel vigor among

students, professors and staff. More and more students are looking for ways to

stay and serve in New Orleans after finishing their degrees.

“We really learned the role that our seminary plays as a ‘lighthouse’ in New

Orleans — as an illustration of the presence of God,” he said.

A few weeks after the storm, the contractor was able to get enough power to

light a few large spotlights. By shining them on the Leavell Chapel steeple,

workers on campus provided the city with one of the few points of light in a

sea of darkness. The lighted steeple, visible from miles away, offered a

testimony of the hope of Christ to the hurting city.

Though the seminary campus is restored and enrollment is making a comeback,

much work remains to be done in the city. As many as 50,000 homes are still

unoccupied. In some areas, entire neighborhoods have not returned. Water marks

left by the flooding still stain some buildings. Many members of the seminary

family are engaged in the ongoing recovery efforts throughout the city.

“The storm created a great awareness of the fragility of life in New Orleans,

but it also created a sense of opportunity,” Kelley said. “Here we had this

broken city, let’s be a part of putting it back together. Let’s weave Jesus in

the fabric of the new New Orleans.”

Due in part to the work of countless SBC Disaster Relief volunteers and rebuild

teams, Baptists in New Orleans are enjoying a larger role in the city.

“People have a very different image of who we are now; I think there is a much

greater respect and appreciation and there is a much greater openness to

Baptist life and our Baptist witness,” Kelley said. “That has been one of the

great redeeming touches that God has brought to our Katrina experience.”

Summing up the past five years, Kelley called the recovery an act of God’s

redemption.

“There will never be a moment in my life that I ever call Katrina ‘good,’”

Kelley said. “It brought so much hurt, so much disruption; I could never call

it good. But I can call it redeemed.

“God is redeeming Katrina in some very beautiful and precious ways. It doesn’t

mean it was a good experience — never can we call evil good — but it does mean

that there isn’t a situation that God cannot use for His purposes.”

Many personal Katrina stories are found in a new book by Curtis Scott Drumm,

associate professor of theological and historical studies in New Orleans

Seminary’s Leavell College. In Providence through the Storm: The New Orleans

Baptist Theological Seminary’s Hurricane Katrina Experience, Drumm shares

insights gleaned from interviews with more than 100 members of the seminary

community — faculty, staff and students — with a goal of preserving a lasting

record of the historic disaster for future generations. The book also provides

a brief history of the city and perspective on the geography and development of

the area around the seminary.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist

Theological Seminary.)

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