"Your baby is very pretty," the man had said. The proud mother thanked him, but his next comment took her by surprise.
"Can I buy her?" he asked. "Can I buy your baby?"
Yocum recalls, "It didn't click. I asked 'excuse me?'"
The stranger repeated his question.
Assuming him to be insane, Yocum quickly returned to Baptist Friendship House across the street, a Southern Baptist mission and her home since a boyfriend deserted her after their child was born. There, staff members explained to Yocum what really happened. The man had asked to buy her baby as his property.
Unable to support herself and her baby, Yocum's circumstances placed her in two groups the Friendship House works diligently to help: the homeless and those vulnerable to human trafficking.
"To know that under-aged girls are bought, obtained, prepared, packaged and distributed like products into strip clubs, online pornography and prostitution breaks my heart," said Kay Bennett, Baptist Friendship House executive director. "God has given me a passion to reach out and help women, one at a time."
Yocum temporarily found work in Birmingham, Ala., for six months, but returned to New Orleans in March to reunite with Baptist Friendship House, the only family she knows. The mission allowed her to clear her head, encounter God and learn anew how to pray. The home, she said, is providing for all her needs.
"One of the biggest things that Baptist Friendship House did was give me the ability to pray and be a stronger person," Yocum said. "This is my extended family."
About 10 miles away at Celebration Church in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb, 34-year-old Andrea Robertson considered hers a lose-lose situation. Facing her husband's infidelity and alcoholism, she was ready to end their marriage.
"There was no doubt I was done. I was at the end of my rope," Robertson said. "If I leave him, I lose, and if I stay, I lose."
She and her husband Eddy enrolled in counseling classes at Hope Center, a ministry of Healing Hearts for Community Development, a nonprofit arm of Celebration Church. Hope Center helped Andrea deal with the "paralyzing pain" of betrayal. Eddy enrolled in Celebrate Recovery, a sister ministry at Celebration Church incorporating 12 Christ-centered steps and eight biblical recovery principles. Eddy has been sober and faithful for the past six years.
Today, Andrea and Eddy are still married and providing a loving home for their four children, ages 7 to 18.
Southern Baptist churches and ministries are fighting numerous social ills in a city known for good times and easy living. In efforts to fulfill God's command to love the least of these, Southern Baptists are leading souls to Christ and penetrating lostness in North America.
The North American Mission Board, meanwhile, has launched "LoveLoud," an initiative to encourage Southern Baptists to engage in community transformation through compassion ministries, evangelism and church planting.
What does it mean to love loud? "It means loving neglected and hurting people as Jesus did -- and pointing them back to Him as the source and ultimate author of that love," said Al Gilbert, executive director of LoveLoud. "It means a daily commitment from churches and individuals to connect mercy ministries with missional living in support of church planting and church strengthening. Ultimately, it's about integrating the Great Commandments of Christ in Matthew 22:36-40 -- to love God and love others."
Modeling God's love for widows, orphans, foreigners and the poor, reminiscent of Zechariah 7:10, pastor Dennis Watson describes Celebration Church as "compassion focused."
"Most of our current church attendees are people who have been won to faith in Christ through our compassion ministry efforts following Katrina," Watson said. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 permanently displaced 60 percent of Celebration's congregation, plunging weekly attendance from 2,500 to 800, the pastor said. He now counts weekly attendance at 4,000, higher than pre-Katrina numbers.
"We have rebuilt our congregation through compassion ministry."
David Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, calls it the "Care Effect," pointing to a three-pronged benefit of compassion ministry blessing the giver, the recipient and the community.
"Jesus said it's more blessed to give than receive," Crosby said. "We believe that compassion is essential, not optional. When the church fails to be a people of compassion and caring, we actually cut the legs out from under the Gospel.
"We authenticate the good news of the Gospel by loving those in trouble."
Baptist Friendship House, Celebration Church, First Baptist and Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, among many others, are modeling the love of Christ in ministries improving the lives of people who are homeless, hungry, poor, elderly, sick, fatherless and vulnerable. Each ministry uses available resources to reach various populations in need. Ministries range from the sophisticated to the seemingly simple; some utilizing hundreds of thousands in funding, others done for the cost of a prayer.
A PLACE FOR MEN
Fred Luter, at the outset of his pastorate at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, began reaching the community by hosting gatherings at his home for up to 25 men to watch pay-per-view boxing matches.
"That was one of the hooks we used to get guys to the church," Luter said. "The guys love sporting events."
In those early days more than 20 years ago, Luter would not hand out tracts or hold Bible study during the gatherings, but the sporting events drew the men to Sunday services, much to the delight of their wives.
"I just feel that if you save the man," Luter said, "the man will save his family."
More recently, since the construction of the church's Family Life Center, sporting events include prayer. Basketball games break every 20 minutes for 10 to 15 minutes of prayer and a Bible devotion.
"It's amazing how that never was a problem for the men," Luter said. "They wanted to play basketball. It's a good way of reaching them."
Franklin Avenue has a myriad of mission initiatives, including ministries to the elderly, the sick and the shut-in, including worship services in nursing homes.
"We take the service to them," church member Brenda Bowman said. "We're just there to remind them we're serving the same God, even though they're not at home."
It's a ministry that doesn't require a large budget, she said.
"We may not be able to go out with money, but we can go with a prayer and a word," she added.
Franklin Avenue avoids duplication of services and increases efficiency through its Love in Action ministry, which brings together all the missions of the church for fellowship and edification. Love in Action allows missions teams to work together jointly on a project, including annual stateside mission trips and a retreat for mission workers.
"There's strength in numbers, and you don't duplicate services," said June Pittman, Love in Action coordinator.
Franklin Avenue's community outreach has included the Neighborhood Rebuild Project in partnership with Samaritan's Purse, speeding the repopulation of the St. Roch neighborhood surrounding the church. Samaritan's Purse built nearly 30 homes during the course of the project.
Franklin Avenue provided sleeping quarters for up to 70 volunteers at a time, paid for a full-time cook to prepare three meals daily for volunteers and the nine Samaritan's Purse staff members on-site. The church provided the lot that housed Samaritan's Purse administrative trailers. Space previously reserved for a bookstore and library at Franklin Avenue temporarily housed bunk beds and a kitchen.
Luter said compassion is critical to the church's mission.
"The church needs to be a place where people know there's compassion there," he said. "'As you've done it to the least of these, you've done it unto me,' and that's our motivation."
With the 2,000-seat sanctuary jam packed at both Sunday morning worship services, Luter has begun a capital campaign to build a second location in New Orleans East.
A PLACE OF HOPE
At Celebration Church, Healing Hearts for Community Development practices compassion through mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment. It was through HHCD's Hope Center that Andrea and Eddy Robertson were able to save their marriage.
"We're very grateful for the Hope Center and especially Michele," Andrea Robertson said, referring to Michele Louviere, Hope Center's clinical director and a former North American Mission Board missionary.
"We sit in really dark places with people," Louviere said. "They naturally want hope. I personally have had clients who were not saved, but in the course of counseling accepted Christ."
Hope Center provided 12,000 hours of direct services last year, impacting clients from 10 parishes (counties). The center uses 40 counselors, including 25 master's-level students from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The parent organization, HHCD, has an $800,000 operating budget this year, drawing from grants, a sliding fee scale and fundraisers, said Freddie Landry, HHCD executive director. The organization's Christian foundation draws many to its programs, he said.
"Most of our clients do come to us looking for the faith-based counseling, but we don't require that," Landry said. "We are always encouraging our clients to go to church, either at our church or another church. Our goal is to bring hope and healing to the hurting people in our community."
CROSSROADS OF HOPE
Deploying 100 volunteers weekly in a wide spectrum of ministries, First Baptist New Orleans brings hope and healing through its Care Effect initiative.
Through its Baptist Crossroads project in partnership with Habitat for Humanity, First Baptist has built 71 homes in New Orleans, utilizing volunteer labor. Baptist Crossroads was created before Hurricane Katrina with the hope of providing 40 homes to low-income working families. Crosby's vision expanded after the storm, which destroyed 90,000 housing units in the metro area.
Another Care Effect ministry is Fuel the Future, in which First Baptist gives backpacks of groceries to 200 low-income students at four area schools on weekends and during holiday breaks, supplementing the free lunches students receive during the week.
"We have significant childhood hunger in Louisiana and particularly here in New Orleans," Crosby said. "We try to feed them over the weekend when they don't have breakfast and lunch provided at school."
These New Orleans churches have watched as their city has struggled to come back after the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. They've been there walking alongside residents before and after the storm. New Orleans Baptists want to see their city flourish. But most of all, they want to see their city know Christ and make Him known. Demonstrating God's love by meeting significant human need while sharing Christ is key to this kind of community transformation.
Stories like these in New Orleans are being played out across North America as Southern Baptists are compelled by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to love neglected neighbors, children and communities.
Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' staff writer. The article first appeared in the summer 2012 issue of On Mission magazine (onmission.com).
Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net