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Jesus’ New Orleans Outdoor Friends

Missionary Joshua Holder ministers amid misery in the Big Easy.

In the hardscrabble inner-city New Orleans neighborhoods of Seventh Ward, St. Roch, and Tremé, some houses still bear spray-painted Xs like morbid trophies, placed by teams searching for victims of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. A few derelict buildings show faded water-level marks from the slow draining of putrid flood waters. For longtime residents of the Crescent City, that cataclysmic storm is the before/after dividing line.

While most of New Orleans has recovered and moved on, misery thrives amid abandoned structures, weedy needle-littered lots, and Interstate 10 underpasses where the city’s homeless sleep.

For eight years, U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries missionary Joshua J. Holder, 41, has ministered to “outdoor friends,” most of whom are chronically homeless, addicted, over age 50, and suffer mental illness. The ministry of Holder and his wife, Andrea, is Urban Outreach: New Orleans, which operates a kitchen trailer while extending friendship and sharing the good news of Christ’s love. It’s part of an AG missionary church planting organization founded by Jay Covert that reaches blighted neighborhoods in U.S. cities. Additionally, Urban Outreach: New Orleans partners with Dallas-based Runners Refuge.

The overarching goal of Urban Outreach: New Orleans is restoration of relationships, including the one most important for eternity. Homelessness, Holder says, doesn’t simply result when the money dries up.

“It begins when relationships run out,” he says. “We want to see chains of addiction and of past hurts broken. We want to see restoration of relationships, most importantly their relationship with Jesus.”

The reason goes beyond addiction to something more deeply rooted that caused the dependency. Holder cites Willy, the “mayor” of the I-10 underpass where he lived. Willy had a falling out with his family, and when the Holders met him, he was so drunk he couldn’t speak. The Holders began ministering to him by taking him socks, food, and hygiene bags, each time offering prayer, “which he adamantly refused,” Holder says. “We’d drive away and pray for Willy.”

However, within four months, Willy had stopped drinking alcohol. Once sober, he shared with Holder the needs, sometimes even clothing sizes, of others living under the bridge. And once Willy had a clear mind, he welcomed prayer.

Holder led Willy to Christ and baptism in the Holy Spirit. As he sat on his loveseat that folded out into a bed in his campsite under the bridge, Willy enjoyed reading the Bible the Holders gave to him.

Urban Outreach soon will resume its coronavirus-paused mobile church services beneath an overpass amid tents. The outreach ministers weekly to 150 people who live outdoors, beneath bridges, or squat in ruined houses in New Orleans where violent crime is endemic. Each service is followed by a fellowship dinner.

Homicide rates in the city are high; stabbings and shootings have become too familiar, especially among the homeless. Many locals suffer chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Holder’s background as a paramedic of almost 20 years comes in good stead. He knows that in the rough neighborhoods of New Orleans, his paramedic skills may prove useful.

“I still carry a medical kit in my Speed the Light truck,” he says. That kit includes typical first-aid supplies, as well as tourniquets for gunshot wounds. “Haven’t had to use those yet.” Opioid overdoses became so common among the homeless that for a year his kit also included the drug Narcan to reverse its deadly impact.

The ministry does meal outreaches, such as cookouts for the New Orleans Police Department, soon expanding to picnics for the city’s fire department, emergency medical services, and nurses.

Holder checks police blotters for unclassified deaths. Often that’s how he learns someone he knows on the streets has died. Among them are Paul, one of three who overdosed on heroin, and five others who died within seven months through mid-2020. That number includes Peg, who died in a portable toilet from a heart condition, and the elderly Mr. Charles, who simply disappeared. “We assumed he passed,” Holder says.

Last December, Willy died. He was in his late 60s. He had been sober 4½ years.

John A. Stout, founder of Runners Refuge, met the Holders in the mid-2010s in a New Orleans suburb as they worked in a post-tornado relief operation.

“Their heart for the homeless is what really drew me to them,” says Stout, 45. “They have the same heart that we have,” Stout says. “Our job and responsibility is to love (the homeless) and that’s all we have to do. He shares meals, but more importantly, he shares relationship.”

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.