By Gary D. Myers
NEW ORLEANS — The story of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Katrina decade is immersed in grace and redemption and punctuated by hope. On the tenth anniversary of the storm, the seminary community is counting blessings rather than losses and leaning into the future with anticipation.
“Here we are 10 years later,” said NOBTS President Chuck Kelley. “What is my conclusion? We serve an amazing God who delights in doing awesome work to care for his children and to extend the work of His kingdom.”
“We are grateful that God was able to pull out of the rubble of Katrina a city of New Orleans that has more energy and has more vitality than it has had in a very long time,” he continued. “And out of the rubble, the seminary is now strong, healthy and doing well.”
During the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in June, Kelley put an exclamation point on the recovery story when he announced that NOBTS recorded the largest enrollment in school history last school year.
The future looked much bleaker after Katrina slammed ashore east of New Orleans Aug. 29, 2005. The storm left a wide path of destruction stretching from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala. Multiple levee failures around the city left 70 percent of New Orleans underwater. Sixty percent of the seminary’s campus housing received significant damage. Students were scattered across 29 states; the faculty evacuated to nine states. The task of training ministers was put on hold.
Three days after the storm, NOBTS administrators summoned key faculty and staff members to Atlanta to formulate a relief and recovery plan. Courses were reformulated into an online, discussion format and a plan was developed to relaunch classes in October. Eighty-five percent of the students who were enrolled at the main campus before the storm opted to continue their studies online or at one of the seminary’s extension centers that semester.
A Call to Return
Meeting on Sept. 26 and 27, 2005, less than a month after the storm, the NOBTS trustees convened in Atlanta to discuss the future of the school. Kelley reviewed the damage with the trustees and presented a plan to restore the campus. New Orleans-area contractor Mike Moskau assured the trustees that a full restoration could be completed in time for the 2006 fall semester.
In their discussions, many of the trustees expressed the desire to rebuild the New Orleans campus as a “call” from God. With awareness of the monument task facing the seminary, the board unanimously approved a to return New Orleans.
“Our trustees looked into the unknown, but they looked at it with the lens of the grace and redeeming power of God and the needs of Southern Baptist churches and the opportunity to reach a broken city,” said Kelley. “And they said, ‘We want to be all in.’”
Financial help poured in from SBC entities, state conventions and individual SBC churches. Early on, the money helped address the human side of the storm, providing financial assistance to the displaced members of the NOBTS community. Later, the gifts and volunteer labor helped the seminary offset the rebuilding expenses that were not covered by insurance.
The reconstruction took eight months and the campus reopened in time for the fall 2006 semester. The cost of the rebuilding project swelled to $75 million.
A New Day for the Gospel
New Orleans, now on the cusp of its 300-year anniversary, experienced dramatic changes following Katrina. One of the most notable changes, a new openness to the gospel, can be traced to the Southern Baptists and other evangelicals who poured into the city to help provide relief and recovery.
“There is an openness to our witness that never existed before,” Kelley said. “I don’t know how long we will see this … it’s already waning some …. but there has been an openness to the gospel in the city of New Orleans that was not present before the storm.”
Southern Baptists responded to the relief needs in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region in unprecedented numbers. They cleaned and restored homes, they listened to heartrending stories of loss and they lovingly shared the gospel. According to Kelley, the SBC response has forever changed the image of Baptists in the city.
The city has experienced an economic and cultural renaissance since the storm. The movie industry and tech startups have joined tourism as leading economic drivers. The food and music industries are flourishing. Creativity is in the air. The public school system, notoriously underperforming before Katrina, is experiencing dramatic reform. This renaissance is bringing young people to the city in unprecedented numbers.
“Millennials are flooding to the city. This is the largest influx of young adults in the history of New Orleans,” Kelley said. “It just feels vibrant.”
The fresh energy in New Orleans has spilled over to the seminary community. In recent years, Kelley has seen students become more engaged in the life of city. Many embrace the city rather than fear it. They want to be involved in the energy and they are looking for innovative ways to have a greater witness for Christ in New Orleans, he said.
“They just aren’t threatened by the city anymore,” Kelley said. “New Orleans is still a challenging place, but it’s a place where a higher percentage of our students become excited about and embrace.”
That has not always been the case. When Kelley was a student 40 years ago, he said it was common for students only to leave campus for church, to buy groceries and an occasional trip to get coffee and beignets.
“Now there is a general sense of concern, care, respect and love for the city, rather than fear and intimidation. That’s a very good thing,” Kelley said. “Southern Baptists have always been strong in small towns. We have to learn how to do life and to enjoy life in the urban context in order to reach cities for Christ. We are watching the students of NOBTS do exactly that.”
Kelley said that reaching the millennial generation is shaping up as the greatest challenge in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. However, as millennials flock to New Orleans, he hopes the seminary and local churches will find ways to reach them with the gospel.
Challenges and Opportunities at NOBTS
While the students who come to the NOBTS main campus in New Orleans are more engaged in the city than ever, Kelley acknowledges that it has been harder to get students to move to New Orleans since the storm.
Only part of that can be attributed to Katrina and the difficulties of the urban context. The changing landscape of higher education accounts for much of the shift. Accessibility, a long-time buzzword at NOBTS, has become the norm in higher education. While NOBTS celebrated the largest enrollment in school history last year, a larger percentage of those students are studying at extension centers and online than ever before.
“Our strategy for pushing seminary training off of the main campus is what prepared us to survive the Katrina experience,” Kelley said. “Katrina was a time machine for the future of theological education. Our once avant garde strategy is now the mainstream of theological education.”
Kelley doesn’t see residential theological education going away anytime soon, but he believes fewer seminary graduates will earn their degree exclusively on a residential campus. He believes this is the future at most seminaries, not just NOBTS. Students are tailoring their education to their calling and life circumstances. This is driving the accessibility efforts throughout theological education. Kelley said NOBTS will continued to innovate to meet the needs of students and churches.
Funding has been and will continue to be a challenge for NOBTS, he said. The accessibility initiatives are more expensive and receive less Cooperative Program funding than traditional models. The CP provides less support extension center students and no funding for online students.
“We have to remember that God is the one doing the calling,” Kelley said. “So when people are answering the call of God, we have to figure out a way to train them and prepare them that connects with their calling. God’s call to them is a call to us. We are called to teach them.”
Lasting Lessons of Katrina
During his long look back on the decade of recovery Kelley is still amazed by God’s “inexhaustible supply of redemption.” His biggest take away from the Katrina experience is that no matter what the believer is facing, he or she can put aside fear and trust solely on God.
“Katrina did not take God by surprise nor worry Him about how he would care for me and our seminary, our seminary family, all Baptist work in the city, all the people who stayed,” Kelley said. “Our God is a redeemer and He is able to take any circumstance we are in and out of it, bring glory to His name and good to His people.”