Heading back to the 7th Ward

July 16, 2015
Story by Betty Backstrom

Rev. Hadley Edwards, right, visits with ‘Mr.’ Noel outside his home in the 7th Ward

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, countless stories were written and broadcast in the national media about the catastrophic flooding that affected nearly 80 percent of New Orleans. The Louisiana city’s “9th Ward” suddenly became a household topic, symbolizing the depth of the disaster that in 2005 had forever changed one of the country’s major metropolitan areas.
 
The 7th Ward of New Orleans, which stretches from the Mississippi River to Lake Ponchartrain, did not receive the same attention in the media. Yet a major part of the area was deeply impacted when the London Avenue Canal, which runs through the ward, breached its levees on both sides.
 
The rich history of the 7th Ward community is steeped in its Creole roots with the area serving as the birthplace of early jazz greats. Dillard University and Lafon Home, both affiliated with United Methodism, are located in the ward.
 
The Louisiana Annual Conference felt the storm’s impact in its ministry to this historic area of New Orleans. “The local churches in the 7th Ward were greatly affected by the loss of members due to Katrina. These already smaller churches basically were either abandoned and sold or merged; those members left without a church home are worshipping with other area local churches,” said Rev. Don Cottrill, provost.
 
The 7th Ward “initiative” is part of the commitment of the Louisiana Conference to develop new faith communities. Ten percent of the conference budget is apportioned for that development, and is the “number one” priority of the conference.
 
Despite major damage to the homes, churches and businesses in this hard-hit section of New Orleans, many people have returned to the 7th Ward to start over in the city they love.
Members of The Spirit Church launch team
prepare to board bus to tour 7th Ward of New Orleans
The United Methodist Church is starting over, too. Rev. Hadley R. Edwards, who has served as the New Orleans District Superintendent for the past three years, has been appointed by Bishop Cynthia Harvey to the 7th Ward of New Orleans to begin a new ministry in this area of the city which has not had a United Methodist church presence since Katrina. This presence will be known as The Spirit Church: A Ministry of The United Methodist Church.

“The name signifies our leaning on the Holy Spirit for strength and inspiration in this ministry that represents a new beginning. Throughout the Bible, stories of new starts were told. In the story of Noah, he released a dove after the flooding rains stopped. The dove returned with an olive branch in its beak, indicating that the storm was over, dry ground was available and new growth had begun,” said Edwards. 
 
The Spirit Church will serve as God’s “hands, feet, boots and hearts ‘on the ground,'" said Edwards, connecting people and “making life better between Sundays.”
 
Since the most important ingredient in this effort “is people," Edwards has connected with one of the homeowners’ associations in the 7th Ward. The president of the group has invited Edwards to the association’s July meeting, where he hopes to deepen contacts and begin to build relationships. “Community gatherings and personal contacts made in the community will be our method of operation as we build a parish. I think John Wesley would approve,” he added.
 
Also in July, Edwards is scheduled to meet with New Orleans City Councilman Jared Brossett to find out more about  the city’s master plan for the 7th Ward.
 
It is fortunate that Edwards is a self-described “people person.” “I am making this personal. I’ve made connections with a barbershop in the 7th Ward, and we all know that you get the real ‘pulse’ of the community in the local barbershop,” he said with a smile.
 
On June 13, about 26 members of The Spirit Church launch team took a bus tour of the area. One of the newest members of The Spirit Church runs a “party bus” service in New Orleans and made arrangements for the group’s transportation.
 
“Wearing our ‘spirit’ shirts, we boarded Snake’s Party Bus and traveled from the New Orleans District office in Metairie to the 7th Ward. The old converted school bus--filled with cold water, drinks and snacks--sported the slogan ‘Let’s Go Get It!’ painted in Saints’ black and gold colors on its side. As we made our way through the area, with the bus windows open and the music playing, we definitely drew attention!,” said Edwards.
 
Rev. Lisa Fitzpatrick, director of the APEX Youth Center in New Orleans and a member of the launch team, arranged for a resident of the 7th Ward to lead the group on the tour. “It was an eye opening experience. We heard from one who lives in the midst of the 7th Ward about the culture, the people, the challenges and the need for our ministry in this mission field,” said Edwards.
 
At several points along the tour, the group disembarked to meet, hug and shake hands with area residents. One memorable encounter was with a woman named Denise, who pointed to a boarded up church building, explaining that the structure used to house her church. “I don’t go anywhere now,” she said.
 
“I shared with Denise what we hoped to do in the 7th ward. I asked her if we were to open a church in the neighborhood, would she come,” said Edwards. Again, pointing to the building, Denise said, “If you open MY church, I’ll be right there.” “I explained to her that we were United Methodists. She, a Catholic, said it didn’t matter. ‘It’s about Jesus, ain’t it?’”
 
A typical row of houses in the 7th Ward of New Orleans
Another area resident named Noel told us that he had also been a lifetime member of the neighborhood Roman Catholic church. Strongly hoping for a church located in his immediate neighborhood, he did not care which denomination it represented  “as long as I get to worship God in my neighborhood.” “I truly believe that Denise and Noel are representative of others in this community starved for the presence of the church,” said Edwards.
 
Events slated for the summer and the early fall of this year include a block party, a “Back to School Bash,” “invitational” neighborhood prayer walks and the launching of share groups (Circles of Conversation and Care—3 Cs) and Bible studies.
 
“At the July block party, we will encourage students to sign up for receiving school supplies. This gives us a chance to tell people more about The Spirit Church and to invite them to the ‘Back to School Bash,’” said Edwards, who is reaching out to local churches in the New Orleans District and to area organizations for assistance with the parties and with collecting the supplies that will be distributed.
 
"The New Orleans District stands ready in support of this new ministry in the 7th Ward," said Rev. Andy Goff, New Orleans District Superintendent. “After 10 years of virtually no ministry in the 7th Ward, there is a sense of renewal and new life that has come back to this part of New Orleans. I invite all of our churches to partner in prayer for The Spirit Church as God does a new thing among us and with us."

The prayer walks will be held each Saturday in September with volunteers canvassing the neighborhoods and distributing invitations to the ministry’s inaugural worship celebration. “These walks will be a great volunteer opportunity for college students  who attend schools in the 7th Ward and who are looking for a worshipping community and are in need of community service hours,” said Edwards. 

The residents of the 7th Ward have been through a lot. Not only have they been without houses of worship, they have lacked spiritual and emotional support. “Our 3 C’s groups will offer folks a safe space just to talk things out that might be happening in their lives. They may be in crisis, or they just might need a place to have conversation,” said Edwards.
 
The current plan is to limit circle size to five to seven individuals; meetings places can be “anywhere,” ranging from coffee shops and restaurants to local bars. “Prayer will be offered and help will be given. And our guidelines will include the 3Cs of being courteous, confidential and compassionate,” he added.
 
The launch team plans to offer dynamic worship that has a blended style of traditional and new. The inaugural worship is scheduled for some time in September; the group is still searching for the “right spot” for indoor worship. An outdoor candlelight community service is also being planned during the Christmas season. “The Christmas service will possibly be held under the bridge at St. Bernard and Claiborne Avenues. We will have hot beverages, S’Mores and will give out gloves, scarves and blankets to those in attendance,” said Edwards.
 
Momentum for resurrecting United Methodist ministry in the 7th ward is building, according to organizers who are pleased with the initial response from area residents. Said one team member: “I loved the slogan on the side of our tour bus, ‘Let’s Go Get It!’ What a perfect sentiment to fuel us as we press forward in this important work of the Louisiana Conference.”