on Thursday, February 9, 2023

James Thomas, church planter at Epic Church in New Orleans and a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Leavell College, was moved by the timing of an NOBTS chapel message calling on believers to pray for the city that coincided with a violent incident occurring nearby.

Unknown to all in the chapel audience Feb. 7, a shooting took place near the campus that claimed the life of one victim.

The chapel speaker that day was Dr. Thomas Strong, vice president of spiritual formation, who drew from Matthew 5:4 and challenged listeners not only to “grieve” over their own sin but to mourn over sin’s impact on the city and community.  

Thomas, admitting that it is easy to grow weary of the world’s sin, saw Strong’s message as a call to action.

The result was an early morning prayer walk and vigil, Feb. 9, near the campus that Thomas helped organize. The prayer walk drew in a local TV station and a crowd of about 200 that knelt in prayer for the city.   

“It’s sin. The solution is Christ,” Thomas said in interview.

Thomas, a New Orleans native, admitted that his first reaction to crime is anger but that Strong’s sermon reminded him that sin should call believers to be diligent to take the gospel to a lost world.

“While Dr. Strong was preaching this, the murder was taking place,” Thomas said in interview. “’What are you going to do about it?’ [Dr. Strong] asked us that question.”

The prayer walk came together after Thomas approached the NOBTS Office of Spiritual Formation, directed by Strong, and the word went out.

In interview, Strong said he marveled at God’s timing that began two months earlier as chapel schedules were shifted around. Strong said it fell to him to preach from that specific passage on that day. Though none involved in chapel scheduling knew Strong’s message would fall on the day of the incident, “God knew,” Strong said.

“God has reminded me how when we just depend upon Him, He weaves things together in ways that we could never put together ourselves,” Strong said. “Our best efforts could not have created this moment.”

Prayer walkers began at a local coffee shop across from the seminary and walked toward the site of the incident.

“We have a sin problem in our city, but there is already a solution that has been paid,” Thomas told participants. Thomas leads a congregation that meets in the former Franklin Avenue Baptist Church facility near the seminary, the FABC campus before its move to a new location in New Orleans East.

“God did not save us to seat us. He saved us to send us,” Thomas said.  

Jamie Dew, NOBTS president, told those gathered that while the moment is “dark,” God calls His people to be “people of light.”

“This is a spiritual problem,” Dew said. “We have to do what we are called to do and be who we are called to be … We preach Jesus Christ as the answer during the darkness in our moment. Pastors, it’s never been more important in what we do than right now.”

Dew pledged the continued love and support of NOBTS and Leavell College to the community and its needs.

Mel Jones, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church and director of the Bethel Colony South Transformation Ministry, across the street from the seminary, urged listeners to remember they are in a spiritual battle. Jones’ ministry serves those struggling with addictions.

“We don’t fight against flesh and blood,” Jones said. “When we walk we pray, and when we pray, we are doing battle.” He added, “I believe God is pleased with what we have done today.”

Participants included believers from local churches, members of Bethel Colony South, and NOBTS and Leavell College faculty, staff and students. Cars passing by honked in support.  

Eugene Green, New Orleans City Councilman, District D, said to the group at the end, “With your help, things will be better a lot quicker.”  

In the first chapel service following the incident, Feb. 9, the seminary family gathered in prayer for the salvation and safety of the community.

From the chapel stage, Dew turned to Thomas and thanked him for organizing the prayer event.

“I’m so thankful for you. I’m so thankful for your leadership and for your heart,” Dew said. “I’m so deeply, deeply encouraged by you and your love for the Lord and for the city, and for leading in this moment.”

Dew reminded listeners of the seminary mission statement to “prepare servants to walk with Christ, proclaim His truth, and fulfill His mission” and encouraged the seminary family to be a part of healing the city.

“This is a moment that our city needs us to be here. They need the gospel,” Dew said. “We need to pray for our city.”