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Six months after embarking on his first church plant, Wayne A. Northup awakened one morning and couldn’t breathe. Northup always had lived with mild asthma, but on this day he couldn’t even walk up the stairs in his house.
A battery of tests spawned various asthma-related treatments prescribed by doctors, ranging from downing unhealthy doses of Prednisone to walking around with intravenous tubes hanging from his body. Besides side effects that included weight gain and abscesses, Northup struggled with fevers, infections, and — still — breathing difficulties.
As the weeks of health troubles dragged into months, Northup, a usually faith-filled Christian, began to hear Satan whispering lies: the New Orleans church he planted would fail; he would die; he would leave behind his wife, Kristi, and the couple’s two children, Libby and Lincoln.
For much of his first two years as pastor of Saints Community Church, Northup couldn’t get out of bed.
Finally, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, diagnosed Northup with bronchiectasis. A daily regimen of powerful pharmaceuticals and therapy that involves a one-hour self-cleaning of his lungs, now allows Northup to live a fairly normal life.
Northup says the medical journey also yielded a spiritual learning curve.
“The Lord said I had only known 50 percent of Him — the power of His resurrection,” Northup says. “Now I know the other half — the fellowship of His suffering.”
By embracing that affliction, Northup says he has learned to be a pastor, after spending 16 years as an evangelist, during which he addressed 1 million students. In evening sessions at school rallies where he could share freely, Northup wove his testimony of youthful rebellion in Fort Wayne, Indiana, abusing alcohol and illegal drugs until making a sold-out commitment to Jesus at the age of 17.
“God made me a shepherd through this, giving me empathy for people who are sick or hurting,” Northup says of his illness.
Unlike some church planters who start a congregation and move on, Northup says God specifically called him to reach New Orleans for the long haul.
The geographical draw to the Big Easy began during Northup’s junior year at North Central University in Minneapolis. Northup says in 1997, a school official duped him into representing North Central at an AG college gathering in New Orleans, a city Northup had never visited.
“I found out later she had asked 10 other people who turned her down,” Northup chuckles.
Nevertheless, the trip proved providential. Upon laying eyes on the French Quarter for the first time, Northup began to sob. His weeping lasted for 2½ hours. By the end of the evening, Northup says God had given him a love for New Orleans.
The next February, Northup organized the first of his annual treks to the Mardi Gras, toting a dozen North Central students along in a van. The numbers have grown over the years, with nearly 4,000 people participating in an Answering the Cries outreach. Teams from 15 churches and schools took part this spring.
The five-day encounters are designed to win souls and raise up soul winners. Northup believes being immersed in a cultural clash environment of blatant immorality can serve as a training ground for spiritually empowered Christians to share their faith with the unconverted. Team members undergo intense training to steer clear of debauched situations. Participants try to engage the carousers in conversation, incorporating everything from dance to rap contests.
While serving as a high-energy traveling evangelist over the years, Northup spent time as a staff evangelist at Stone Creek Church in Urbana, Illinois, Emmanuel Christian Center in Minneapolis, and The Oaks Fellowship in Red Oak, Texas.
Nearly 5½ years into the church plant, Saints Community Church is a multiethnic and multigenerational congregation, with around 30 percent of attendees African-American and 15 percent Hispanic. The church, planted with the help of the Church Multiplication Network and the AGTrust Matching Fund, is located in Metairie. Northup now is on the team that trains new CMN church planters.
Daniel Rickett, 38, moved to New Orleans from Illinois six months after the church started. Rickett, then a youth pastor, says God told him in a dream to go serve the church and hear the cry of the city — even though he didn’t know the Northups. Rickett’s wife, Lora, eight months pregnant at the time, agreed to move — after she delivered their son Parker.
Rickett serves as an elder at the church. He is on the teaching team, coaches and mentors leaders, and he preaches on a regular basis — all as a volunteer.
“Wayne and Kristi are passionate about reaching the lost and about discipleship,” says Rickett, a teacher and administrator at a New Orleans public charter school.
Rayven Hayes converted to Christ soon after she began attending Saints Community. She felt drawn by the compassion of women in a small group who rallied around her after a domestic violence situation.
“I never felt love or a welcoming like the ladies who gave me Scriptures and helped me out,” says Hayes, 23. “They were there for me and my daughter.”
When Hayes returned to her apartment one day from her job as a restorative health care aide, she discovered all the furniture gone. Women in the church replaced the furnishings with newer ones.
“I love those people so much,” says Hayes, now a single parent to her 2-year-old girl. “They brought me the greatest gift by showing me Jesus.”
Northup’s long-term vision is to start a dozen congregations in metro New Orleans. He believes multiple locations will be more strategic than a megachurch because many residents tend to rarely leave their neighborhood.
Northup, 41, never intends to leave the city that has a spiritual climate like nowhere else. The paganism and perversion on display just before Lent don’t necessarily leave when the revelers go home.
“This is a unique culture in the U.S.,” Rickett says. “There have been plenty of challenges, but God has been faithful.”
IMAGE - Answering the Cries volunteers interact with Mardi Gras revelers.