C. S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” I don’t imagine Lewis had this particular phrase of the Lord’s Prayer in mind as he penned these words, but in all the tragedies and turmoil surrounding Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, God has indeed shouted at me many new lessons about “daily bread.”
I grew up as the son of an Air Force chaplain in what would be considered a middle-class family. I often remember struggling over what to eat — never if I would eat. So, like many other middle and upper-class, evangelical Americans, I would begin processing verses like this in the first way that came to my mind, in a hyper-spiritual way.
Without the experience of truly needing God for our physical needs for each day, we all have a way of taking many of Jesus’ sayings and limiting them to the spiritual realm.
We’ve been clearly told that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), and most of us know and believe that Jesus is the bread of life, our spiritual sustenance. All of this is certainly true and incredibly important. But if we immediately go the “spiritual” route here, perhaps we’ve missed the basic point.
So while the hurricane caused me to cry more than I ever have, and while it’s easily been the worst year for me in every imaginable way, Katrina forced me to seek God in very real and physical ways. The name “Katrina” actually means cleansing, or purification, and this storm certainly lived up to its name.
But my story with New Orleans and Katrina started a few years before the storm hit the coast.
After my college football days at the University of Florida, I was drafted by the New Orleans’ Saints in 1997. I learned of an amazing inner-city ministry in the heart of the Desire Community in the 9th Ward. I vividly remember my first trip to Desire Street Ministries: I was driving by rows and rows of old project buildings that, in my opinion, should have been condemned and torn down years before. Doors and windows were missing; lost shingles exposed holes in the roofs; sparse patches of grass dotted the dirt yards, and there was garbage everywhere.
Then I saw a little girl walk out of one of the doors; that dilapidated project was her home. I later learned the Desire Housing Project was built upon a former landfill, that the Project was rated one of the worst in the nation, and that it was often the murder capital of New Orleans, which was often the murder capital of the United States of America.
Several kids from those projects would walk across the street in the evenings for recreation, food and Bible studies in an old warehouse. Each child, as he would begin to pray, would always start with “thank you Lord for waking me up this morning.” You see, to the children of the Desire neighborhood, waking up is truly a gift. To them, waking up each morning wasn’t guaranteed. This was my first lesson in such simple and dependent faith, the kind I think Jesus had
in mind here.
But something else really started bothering me. This neighborhood was located very close to my NFL community of affluence — Desire Street was only a few miles from the Superdome. How could there be so much wealth in one place and so much poverty right around the corner?
Maybe when we ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread,” He’s already answered us and provided it for us as a whole, but some of us hoard it and others don’t get enough.
But we all know how foolish it is to hoard our things, don’t we? After all, a direct correlation in the Lord’s Prayer is the manna in the wilderness, which we know from the Old Testament was there only for the day. Not only was it useless to hoard manna, it was foolish!
America’s consumerism and bent for the easy life doesn’t seem to be in line with the practices of the New Testament church. “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…. There was not a needy person among them”
And saving for “retirement” to enjoy the “good life” while neglecting our opportunity to share our “bread” with the poor and needy sounds too much like the parable of the guy who stored up grain in bigger and bigger barns (Luke 12:13–21). It didn’t work well in the end for him — and it won’t work for us either.
While my three years with the Saints didn’t yield super bowl trophies or pro-bowl appearances — actually, we were so bad they fired all the coaches, most of the players and even the mascot — I’m thankful for my time with the Saints. The Lord led me to Desire Street Ministries and taught me about simple faith and His concern for the poor.
After a few more years in the NFL with other teams, I retired and joined the staff at the ministry, seeking to help revitalize the Desire neighborhood through the Gospel both in
word and deed. We labored to meet both spiritual and community needs. We had started a church, a pediatric clinic, after-school programs, and then eventually our own school, Desire Street Academy. As the fall of 2005 was approaching, we had big plans for a new football field.
Then came Hurricane Katrina.
My wife and I evacuated before the storm and went to Natchez, Mississippi. Our first glimpse of the devastation after the storm came when a TV helicopter flew over New Orleans. Words can’t describe our feelings at the sight of the entire city under water. We were shocked and horrified at the extent of the devastation; then a short while later, we realized that our own one-story home was under water and that we had lost everything.
While we were indeed trying to comprehend the loss of our material things, a worse drama was still unfolding in the city. The New Orleans’ mayor was speculating that the loss of life could be in the tens of thousands, and we didn’t know the whereabouts of many of our students and staff; we feared for their lives.
So while we contemplated the loss of our things, our overwhelming feeling was that of gratitude — we were safe and still had each other.
Looking at my wife and my son, I realized that while we may have lost everything we owned, we still had everything we needed. God shouted to us a reminder about the differences between wants and needs. I’m certain that, to Jesus, “daily bread” had more to do with daily needs than daily wants.
As we began locating our students and staff, we became convinced of the priority to get our school back on track and find a way to care for our kids. Incredibly, we found a 4-H camp managed by my alma mater, the University of Florida, and they helped make it available to us. On October 3, just a month after the storm, we reopened our school, Desire Street Academy and ended up with about eighty-five students.
Quickly, we had to convert our day school into a boarding school, which is no easy task. Every day, new challenges came about, but God literally provided each of our needs, each day, enabling us to continue with our goal of transforming the lives of kids from New Orleans.
When the school year ended, we transitioned the school from its temporary home in the panhandle of Florida to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The Lord, again faithful to meet our needs, provided a 24-acre, former Catholic school. A few renovations later, the school is continuing to educate and minister to the youth of Desire Street, and now to the Baton Rouge community as well.
Back in the city of New Orleans, we had staff working around the clock, housing over 2000 volunteers and working on hundreds of houses. We’ve continued to seek the revitalization of the Desire neighborhood, and each day new doors open for us to continue having an impact on the city of New Orleans.
In the aftermath of the storm, a very common sight in New Orleans was a mound of trash piled up on the sidewalk in front of a gutted home. These piles of trash are a daunting spectacle, especially when you pause to consider that, just a few months earlier, each pile of trash was the sum total of someone’s valued possessions and treasures. How quickly treasures can turn into trash.
This thought causes me to question how much of my life — my time, treasure and talents — am I investing in what will one day become trash. God shouted another lesson at me, a reminder to invest my life in eternal things. Maybe in investing more of my life in eternity, I can be my neighbor’s answered prayer for his “daily bread.”
“Give us this day our daily bread.”
When I was growing up, I felt this was a pretty demanding and arrogant prayer. Who of us had the right to tell God to give us our daily bread, or to give us anything for that matter? But then I realized this statement is really a simple and humble prayer, not asking too much of God but only just enough for the day. Whether we feel it or not, we are more like the Israelites wandering in the desert than we might imagine — if God doesn’t provide what we need for this day, both spiritually and physically — we won’t make it to see tomorrow.
May God grant us all such simple faith. I just pray it won’t take another hurricane for me (or for you) to experience the blessings of true dependence on God for our real needs for each day.