The march of the Last Responders

The march of the Last Responders

By Steve Beard

They weren’t taking any chances. For Super Bowl Sunday, the historic St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans called the Vatican to seek permission to replace the Papal flag over the front entrance of the sanctuary with the flag of the New Orleans Saints.

Attendance rivaled Easter Sunday, and the entire congregation was bedecked in black and gold. After his sermon, Monsignor Crosby Kern prayed for the Saints, pulled off his vestments to reveal the quarterback Drew Brees’ jersey, and led a “Who Dat” cheer as he shook hands with parishioners.

With tongue in cheek, it was suggested during the service that the faithful should remember St. Joan of Arc—her large statue only blocks away from the cathedral—as she rode a colt to victory as a saint.

In sports narratives, it’s hard to beat the Saints-Colts storyline. With all due respect to the faithful Indianapolis Colts fans, this was never going to be a fair fight. The underdog and scrappy Saints became America’s team. The experts picked the Colts, but the heart and soul of the nation picked the Saints. How could a fan not want to see the Lombardi Trophy go to a city that was almost swallowed up in a watery grave?

According to the Nielsen ratings, Super Bowl XLIV was viewed by the largest audience in TV history for a single broadcast. The case can certainly be made that the numbers reflected a deep seated interest in the recovery of New Orleans.

I’m not an impartial observer. I wore my “Believe Dat!” shirt and my fleur-de-lis Saints hat during the Super Bowl with pride. Years ago, I fell in love with New Orleans. I loved the Creole and Cajun cultures, the architecture, the jazz, the art, and the food. Jambalaya, red beans and rice, muffuletta sandwiches, gumbo, crawfish etouffee, shrimp po’boys, boudin sausage, chickory coffee, and beignets—what’s not to love?

The history of the city is etched with the scars of floods, fires, hurricanes, and battles. Its streets have been trod by preachers and pirates, steamboat captains and stowaways, the devious and the pious, the Jazz Man and the Jesuit, as well as a whole host of lovers, rogues, and warriors. I love the eclectic history.

But after Katrina, I fell in love with the Saints. Their decision to stay in the city and help rebuild the devastated area prompted my respect and admiration.
Yeah, yeah, it’s only sports. I hear you. But weren’t we witnessing a team trying to give CPR to a city?

40 billion gallons
In early January, I was back in New Orleans. During the shuttle ride from the airport to the hotel, we drove slowly past the Superdome. Instantly, the devastating images of 30,000 bedraggled men, women, and children trying to take refuge in the partially-destroyed edifice came streaming through my mind. The aerial shots of the desperate and dispossessed looking for an escape from the torrents of water seemed to play all over again in slow motion as we drove by.

The elderly, the sick, and the poor were trapped like contestants on a particularly cruel episode of Survivor, surrounded by 40 billion angry gallons of putrid water.

Four-and-a-half years have gone by since Katrina threw her tragic tantrum. It’s hard to imagine this place under water—but not impossible. If you venture out of the French Quarter, you can see the aftermath. Of course, much of the devastation has been erased, hundreds of unsalvageable homes bulldozed. You will also not see the thousands of truckloads of debris that have been removed, nor will you witness the 200,000 cars that were strewn about as if King Kong began throwing them around the Lower Ninth Ward.

What can be seen may be as subtle as eye-level waterlines on the sides of buildings where the tide had reached, or it can be as unsubtle as the spray painted markings of the First Responders—the rescue workers who entered each and every home looking for survivors hiding in the attics. Their series of X’s and O’s and initials have been called the iconography of the tragedy. When was someone last inside? Were there any human remains?

In some neighborhoods, it’s not uncommon to see a freshly painted, rebuilt home with a new roof sprung up between dilapidated hovels that look as though they are waiting for a wrecking ball. As a homeowner, you may have no idea if your neighbors will ever return. Nevertheless, you start over, rebuild your home, reestablish your residence, and take a gamble on the future of the city’s saints.

Watching the horror
Leonard Carter was in Texas watching the horror at the Superdome unfold on CNN. Retired after 21 years in the military and retired a second time from the New Orleans School District, Carter was chomping at the bit to return to his home and begin the process of cleaning up the mess.

He managed to return before New Orleans was officially opened back up to the public and drove through the desolate and eerily silent streets—something like a war zone after both sides had run out of bullets.

As my guide one afternoon, Carter regaled me with stories of recovery and restoration in the neighborhoods of the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Wards. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s a project manager for the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry.

The faith-based relief agencies — ranging from the Southern Baptists to the United Methodists to the Roman Catholics to the non-denominational — have been the lifeblood of the mission to restore that which Katrina destroyed.
The United Methodists have kept a trained eye on those who fell through the cracks. “We have always looked out for the least, the last, and the lost,” he says.

Carter has seen it all. He has also heard the heart-breaking tales of those who were scammed by phony contractors. Deceptive vultures preyed on the weak and vulnerable. Yet one block over, Christian charity and compassion motivated the building of a new roof. It is a workplace of contrasts—open hands and dark hearts lurk in the same neighborhood.

As if that were not enough, bewildered citizens wrestled with the profound tragedy of an elderly woman dying in her FEMA trailer during a tornado—days away from moving into her rebuilt home. For those pouring their hearts into rebuilding, how do you begin to grapple with the perplexity of that situation? After all the hard work, sweat, and toil, an experience like that tears at faith in Providence and serves as a graphic dagger through the heart.

Nevertheless, the men and women rebuilding New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast region wiped the tears from their eyes and stayed on course, keeping the faith.

United Methodist action
As of January 31, more than 72,000 volunteers have shown up to work with the Louisiana United Methodists. They have appeared from every Annual Conference within the United States and from 33 countries. Over the last four years, many churches within our denomination have repeatedly sent work teams. For example, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, has sent 55 teams on the 14-hour drive to the Gulf Coast. Seventy percent of the volunteers are repeat visitors.

Thus far, United Methodists—through three million volunteer labor hours and contributions to UMCOR—have contributed 95 million dollars worth of economic development to the region.

There are currently 67 full-time employees working with the United Methodist Church focused on the rebuilding effort.

In New Orleans, 39 United Methodist churches were flood damaged. The Louisiana Annual Conference collected a special offering to pay the pensions and pastors’ salaries of those whose congregations were dispersed and sanctuaries damaged. Local congregations began using the recovery effort as a ministry. They have even sent their own staff to other disasters in different parts of the United States.

Remarkably, United Methodists in Louisiana recently raised $164,000 for Haitian relief.

We can fix this
Nothing makes 71-year-old Leonard Carter happier than being able to look at a home and say, “We can fix this.” He has between 20 and 50 houses being salvaged at any one time. The whiteboards in his office survey the progress of each home. The United Methodist relief ministry juggles work teams, finances, and the hopes and dreams of eager displaced residents.

“I look forward to going to work every day,” says Carter. The office hours at the center begin at 9 a.m., but Leonard is often already on the job at 6:30.
While I was in New Orleans during the first week of January, there were 70 college students associated with various Wesley Foundations throughout Arkansas working on the rebuilding project.

They keep coming—four-and-a-half years after Katrina!

Desperately needed, the volunteers are all put to work. High school students to retirees to trained construction workers—plumbers, carpenters, masons—all show up to help.

Many of the big-time relief organizations are downsizing their operations. With faith and stamina, United Methodists will be among the Last Responders for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

On and off field saints
The Saints’ NFL franchise was awarded to New Orleans on All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, 1966. John Mecom, the original owner, called Archbishop Philip Hannan to ask if he or his Catholic parishioners would have any objection to the franchise naming the team the Saints.

The archbishop gave his blessing, but wisely told Mecom, “Most of our saints were martyrs.”

A few years later, Hannan actually wrote a Prayer for the Saints which included the humorous plea, “Grant to our fans perseverance in their devotion and unlimited lung power, tempered with a sense of charity to all, including the referees.”

At the Saints and Sinners booster club banquet in 1968, Hannan ended his prayer with these words: “May the ‘Saints Come Marching In’ be a victory march for all, now and in eternity.’”

New Orleans knows that saints come from all walks of life. Some are found in black and gold on the gridiron, while others emerge simply as hammer-toting believers in hipwaders filing out of a church van looking for a city to salvage.

For the soul of the city, New Orleans needed both. For the soul of the nation, we need New Orleans.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Tackling Terry Bradshaw

Tackling Terry Bradshaw

Archive: Tackling Terry Bradshaw

The NFL legend talks with Steve Beard

Good News, 2006

When I was growing up, I was infatuated with two NFL quarterbacks. One was the long-haired Kenny “The Snake” Stabler of the Oakland Raiders and the other was Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers – the first quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to four Super Bowl championships.

Ever since he was chosen as a #1 draft pick player in 1970, Bradshaw has entertained sports fans as an athlete, broadcaster, and analyst. He led the Pittsburgh Steelers to six AFC championship games and eight straight playoff appearances from 1972-1979. Bradshaw, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, a four-time All-Pro, was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

I watch Bradshaw every Sunday afternoon as the co-host and analyst on “Fox NFL Sunday,” a four-time Emmy Award-winning NFL pregame show. His work on the program earned him two Sports Emmy Awards.

Since his retirement from football, Bradshaw has dabbled in show business, appearing both in feature films and television shows. He was the first NFL player to receive a Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Multitalented, Bradshaw has recorded four albums, two of which were gospel records nominated for Dove Awards (one of them with the legendary Jake Hess). He is an exceedingly popular motivational speaker and author of five books. I remember my parents giving me No Easy Game (1973) to read when I was just a kid. He was a great inspiration to me.

Four days before the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game to earn the right to play in Super Bowl XL (2006), I was able to catch up with Terry Bradshaw and ask him about three subjects he knows quite a bit about: fame, faith, and football.

What goes through your head when you see someone wearing a black and gold #12 jersey?

That’s pretty cool. 

You are definitely not someone who glories in past accomplishments –  as dramatic as they are. For example, you do not live in Pittsburgh. Do the glory days of the 1970s Steelers bring back good memories of a really great chapter of your life?

They do. And you’re right about one thing. I don’t dwell on yesterday. I’m living for today and planning for tomorrow. And that’s how I have always lived my life. I don’t live in the past. I don’t talk about my football accomplishments. I don’t do any of those things. To me, it just stirs up the past. And the past serves me no good. While I’m proud of it and realize how hard I worked to get there, it’s over. It’s over for me and I move on. But when I see that #12 jersey, like when I went back to Pittsburgh and saw my jersey was still being sold with my name on it, it does make you feel good.

It is not a secret that you are a Baptist. What is the most difficult thing about maintaining your faith in the spotlight?

Everybody’s Baptist here in the South except those who’ve been messed with. [Laughter.]

Here’s the first thing I always do at the end of the day: “Lord, forgive me, please.” A lot of forgiveness. There’s a lot of temptation. Not so much a woman-thing or a booze-thing, but just being-a-man-thing. You’re in the groups and you’re telling jokes and they’re laughin’ and gettin’ crazy. And then at the end of the day you pound your head and go, “Nice. Way to go, Terry. That’s just beautiful. Really, you’re really doin’ work for the Lord.”

It beats me up, everyday. I wish I were Billy Graham, but I’m not. I struggle. I fight. I go nuts. And the only time I’m really a good Christian is when football season is over and I’m able to get back in church around all my Christian family. And then I feel like I’ve been purified. But often I’ve said, “I’m just scum of the earth.” And I get so tired of being this weakling. I’m not a good example.

In your book Keep It Simple, you actually had your Christian therapist give us a sketch of your personality. Would you explain what he was able to do for you in relationship to your Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and depression?

Sure. Absolutely. I’ve said this a thousand times: “Everybody ought to have an analyst. Everybody.” And, you know, I still talk to my therapist, or whatever you want to call it. Still talk to him, still share things with him. Also, my preacher has become one of my best friends, and he helps me get past the guilt. Yeah, he’s a good friend of mine. And the church prays for me before I go off because they know I’m walking into that den of iniquity. It’s a struggle, man. I start off good. Then I get bad. Then I rebound, then I get worse. It just drives me up the wall. I oftentimes just go, “You know, some Christian you are.” And so many times I’ve ended the season and said, “I’m not going back. I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m sick and tired.”

I live on a ranch, and at nights I can see the stars and I’m just amazed that God loves me as much as he does when I’m such a pitiful example.

You have spoken about your reluctance to call yourself a Christian because you don’t want to be a bad example for the faith. Is that still what you believe?

It’s not something I dwell on. I don’t beat myself up anymore. One of the things I’ve done since I got saved and gone to therapy is not necessarily make excuses for myself anymore. My preacher’s helped me tremendously. I know God loves me. I know he forgives me. I know he’s upset with me and disappointed in me. But I don’t let my sin separate me from him like I used to. I don’t let that happen anymore. I’m not a good example, but I try to be.

I preached for the first time last year.

You did?

Yes, sir. In my speeches that I give I’m always making references to my faith. So I have slowly come out of that protective shell. I know how Christians are. We’re the worst people in the world. I understand why so many people say, “Why would I want what you’ve got. I’ve got the same thing. And look at you. You’re just as bad as I am.”

Is it different for those in the public eye?

That is a real struggle for people, not only in the public eye, but people that are not – it’s no different. It’s a struggle. And God knows it’s a struggle. I wish I could’ve walked with Jesus. Would I have been a Doubting Thomas? They saw the miracles performed. They saw him on the cross. They saw him gone from the tomb. And yet, they still had some doubts. If they had doubts and they saw it, you know, thousands of years later here we are. God says to us that we can get to heaven by accepting Christ by faith.

It’s so simple to get saved. It’s so simple, yet we look at the complexities of God and the wonders that he created and ask ourselves these questions, “How long did it take? How did he do it? Where did it come from?” So, as complex as it is to understand that – and he told us we’re not going to understand it – God made it a thousand times easier to become part of his family just by a simple profession of faith.

As Baptists are prone to ask, where are you planning on spending eternity?

Oh, I’m gonna be in heaven singin’ praises and walkin’ with Jesus and talkin’ with God and seeing the angels and being with my grandfather and my grandmother and all those that I love and my family that’s going to join me. Man, it’s going to be a celebration for eternity. That’s where I’m going to be. And I’m in no hurry to get there. But when I die, that’s where I’ll be.

Will there be country music in heaven?

There’ll be country music, and they’ll all sing on key.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Cover photo: Courtesy of FOX NFL Sunday (2006).