When they met church planter James Welch (@harborjames) in 2008, they were still grieving Hurricane Katrina and the loss of their homes, community and what had been their church. The congregation dreamed of one last selfless act that would continue the church's rich legacy long into the future.
"If we want to reach the world, we have to be willing to change," said Phyllis Dixon, a member of Lakeview Baptist since 1960, when she joined with her husband Ed. "Those who aren't willing to change won't go anywhere."
In the coming months these Lakeview members offered Welch their church building and merged with the young church he had been forming. To help Lakeview with this grieving process, Welch brought in a grief counselor to walk them through the next stages. Though merging a young church plant with an aging congregation wasn't always easy, Welch said they've tried to do it in a healthy way.
"We gave about a year just to help Lakeview through it," Welch said. "It's been cool because it gave them a group of young people who love them. Many of them have gone home to be with Jesus, so we got to celebrate with them at their funerals. Some of them, once it was all complete, decided to be a part of churches like they were a part of in the 70s and '80s. And there are four of them who have remained a part of our church and have gotten connected with community groups."
Welch and a core team of leaders launched a new congregation, Harbor Community Church, in 2011. The new church has grown to more than 200 in attendance, most of whom have come to faith in Christ there, Welch says.
James and Amy Welch's hearts broke, as did those of many Southern Baptists, as they learned about Hurricane Katrina's damage to New Orleans in August of 2005. After they expressed their intense call by God to help the beleaguered city, Sojourn Community Church and Crossings Community Church, both in Louisville, Ky., sent the couple to New Orleans in March 2006.
"We wanted to put our faith in action," Welch said. "We really wanted to be a part of Gospel renewal in an area, and New Orleans just seemed like a place where we could practically live out our faith."
For the first few years, Welch simply focused on helping the city get back on its feet, doing everything from cleaning up damaged houses to rebuilding new ones. As the rebuilding work became more specialized, the couple switched gears and started an arts center in the community in partnership with some friends.
Through the arts center Welch continued building relationships with the diverse lot of artists who were returning to the city. As people came to faith in Christ, he formed small groups to help disciple them and continued to dream about starting a church once the city was back on its feet.
About three and a half years after Katrina, Welch realized he needed a physical building to begin consistent worship services. That's when the New Orleans Baptist Association connected Welch with Lakeview. The partnership helped both churches. Lakeview members were able to once again invest their resources into a growing church. Welch and his team received a building and a team of New Orleans tutors.
"God gave them to us," Welch said. "They coached us a lot in terms of what it means to live in New Orleans. Mr. Wheeler (one of the Lakeview members) knew how every neighborhood had changed in the city, literally, over 85 years -- what the demographics were and what the psychographics were."
The Dixons have remained an active part of Harbor throughout the changes. Dixon says she and her husband appreciate that Harbor's younger people have treated them like family and have welcomed and appreciated their involvement. The Dixons have even been "stand-in" grandparents for the Welches children during "Grandparents Day" at school.
"It has been a thrill for my husband and I to see the church grow," Dixon said. "All the young people and the children are there. It has been a great blessing to have joined with them and have them working with us now."
As Harbor Community Church looks toward the future, Welch says the church plans to launch new church plants throughout New Orleans and North America. Giving to missions through the Cooperative Program and being a part of a Southern Baptist network of churches remains an important part of that future.
"I would say one reason we're a part of the is because we can do more together than we can alone," Welch said. "By uniting a portion of our individual resources, it allows us to make a big impact. From education to disaster relief, we are able to do things no one congregation could do. At Harbor our mission is to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. Partnership with others across the convention allows us to do this around the globe."
Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board. For more information on Send North America: New Orleans, visit namb.net/neworleans. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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