Last month during Mardi Gras, members of the Vieux Carre Baptist Church stood on their gallery watching the parade, throwing Moon Pies to riders on the floats. Tom Bilderback, pastor of the Vieux, said that many in the community of the French Quarter expect judgment from people in the Church, but they seemed to appreciate some sugar from the Church instead.
The Vieux has a rather unique address: it's one block away from Bourbon Street, a street known for its bars, boisterous music and strip clubs. The church itself has a bar for a neighbor. A previous pastor, decades ago, is said to have been irritated by loud jukebox music from the bar next door. He stopped in the middle of his Sunday morning sermon, went next door, and asked for the music to be turned down. The music, not surprisingly, was turned up. The pastor went next door and cut the juke box cord. The bar called the cops. The pastor had to fix the cord to avoid being arrested.
Pastor Tom has tried a different approach.
The church began as a home Bible study back in 1954, moving from house to house. The current building was purchased in 1964 (I heard conflicting reports about whether it had previously been a restaurant or a bakery). There have been several pastors though the years, and times when there has been no pastor. At least one of those pastors wasn't even a Baptist. The connection of the church to the Southern Baptist Conference is rather loose, but the church has a commitment to stay true to the conference's doctrinal positions.
Tom arrived in town in 2007 after working for years as a master auto mechanic. He was part of the church, but was not yet the pastor. Tom got a job as a bartender on Bourbon St. He didn't make a deal of being a Christian, but just tried to live as a Christian. And the other people working at the bars noticed he was different. (Need we mention that this one thing about Tom quickly won over the people who write Dean and Mindy Walk into a Bar?)
In 2011, Tom became the pastor. He doesn't have a seminary background (in fact, he doesn't have a college background), but he has the gifts and heart of a pastor. One of the duties that falls on Tom and the congregation, due to the church's location, is caring for the homeless. Part of the appeal of the community for the homeless is the relatively mild climate (apart from the occasional tornado, hurricane, or flood). Sadly, a bigger draw for many in the homeless community is the ready availability of drugs and alcohol.
Mindy and I attended the Wednesday night Bible study attended by a mix of folks, including a few other out of town visitors and a few homeless folks. Jason introduced himself as a homeless alcoholic. Tom asked Jason about Joey, another friend of the church, who seemed to be missing. Jail or the hospital seemed like his most likely location.
A central part of the church's ministry to the homeless is the Friday showers. I went with Tom to Armstrong Park to hand out tickets for the morning or afternoon session. The ticket allows the holder to a shower, lunch and clothes from the closet. There were a dozen men waiting when we arrived at 7:00 am, and for the next hour more men and women showed. It was a chilly morning, and I noticed a man wearing shorts and a thin shirt. I approached him. He told me he got out of jail the day before and could use a jacket. Tom gave him a ticket.
The first session was at 10:30 am, but they let one woman in to shower early. It was explained to me that the woman who called herself "Baby Doll" took a long time in the shower for her "personal business." Sonja, Tom's wife, told us that she used to have a vile temper, but that God had worked on her heart through time and she was now quite the sweetheart.
Volunteers from another church had brought the lunch for the day: jambalaya prepared by the crew of a fire station (it was quite good). Tom watched the front door ("Doing the politicking," he called it). Adam (a former Vieux intern) controlled the flow at the door to the showers. A number of people rotated between serving and chatting with guests at the tables. Mindy joined Mama Rose in the clothes closet; handing out jackets, pants, shirts, jackets, shoes, socks, and underwear and various toiletries when they were requested. Mama Rose spent decades on the street before becoming sober and a Christian; now she's a vital part of the ministry of the Vieux.
Tom's sermon was titled, "The Trouble with Being Naked," based Genesis 3 -- the same passage Mindy and I heard preached the week before at First Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It's a pleasure to hear different insights from the same passage of Scripture, and Tom brought out many good points that were different from Tasha Blackburn's excellent sermon the week before.
I asked Lauren, an intern at the Vieux, what she appreciated most about the church. She gave an answer that I heard others at the church echo in various forms: "Honesty." She said the guys on the street don't hide their problems, like people do in churches she's been to. And you can't address problems unless you're honest about them. And by God's grace, Vieux Carre Baptist Church will continue to meet the needs of the French Quarter with love and compassion.
Service Length: 1 hour 40 minutes
Sermon Length: 40 minutes
Visitor Treatment: By Sunday, we weren't exactly visitors, so our experience wasn't typical. Newcomers are taken as a matter of course and welcomed whether they're tourists or street people. There's no attendance registration, but regular attenders know who's who.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: We had lunch with Tom, Sonja, and Adam. Late Sunday afternoon, Sonja texted us.
Our Rough Count: 39 people and two dogs
Probable Ushers' Count: 45 ... if there had been ushers
Snacks: coffee, ice water, donuts
Musicians: percussion (male)
acoustic guitar (male)
electric guitar (male)
"One thing remains"
"Good, good Father"
"How He loves"
Miles to church: down the hall and around the corner (we slept in bunks in the same building)
Miles from start: 7,115
Total 2016 Miles: 7,070
Church website: www.thevieux.com