By Gabriel Stovall

NEW ORLEANS, La. – “I remember watching the news and seeing how Hurricane Katrina had just devastated the city, and here I was, 12 hours away in a tiny little landlocked town in Kentucky, sobbing and telling my mom that these people needed our help,” Abbey Caudell said. “I told her, ‘We have to go.’”

In hindsight, Abbey believes God was using that time to plant initial seeds of compassion in her heart for a place that would later become both her mission field and home.

“God definitely has a sense of humor,” she said with a chuckle.

If Abbey Caudell and Isaac Woodward had their way, though, both would likely be somewhere in Northern Africa or the Middle East sharing the gospel But serving God and getting your own way usually aren’t the same thing.

For Abbey, serving as part of Send Relief’s 2-year Journeyman apprenticeship program through Lakeshore Church and the New Orleans ministry center is a long way from her native Frankfurt, Kentucky—not to mention her original ministry plan.

Abbey graduated from Campbellsville University in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in music education and a passion to be a school music teacher. But burning in the background was a desire to serve Jesus on the mission field.

When she discovered GenSend in the summer of 2016 and received her assignment to serve in New Orleans, the thought of one day calling the bayou her home was the furthest thing from her mind.

“When I first came here, I absolutely hated it,” she said. “I was ready to go home. I thought it was so different than where I was from in Kentucky. I didn’t see how it could have anything to do with how I wanted to serve God.”

Although Isaac Woodward’s introduction to New Orleans was different than Abbey’s, Isaac’s pre-scripted plans for his ministry, and the place New Orleans should play in it, was pretty similar.

Isaac Woodward calls his time as a New Orleans Journeyman his next step of obedience in his path toward making the city, and North America in general, his main mission field.

“From a pretty young age, around 8 years old, I had made a profession of faith prayer to receive Jesus into my life,” Isaac said. “When I got to my teenage years, one thing my parents always emphasized was a willingness to go anywhere for the gospel.”

It’s actually how the Woodwards got to New Orleans. After time spent in South Carolina and North Georgia, Isaac’s dad got offered an opportunity to lead the music department at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary when Isaac was just 11 years old.

But though Isaac was very familiar with New Orleans and the southeastern United States in general, his prayers were taking him somewhere else.

“I always prayed for adventure,” he said. “I was the one where if you said to me, ‘God might call you to Africa,’ I wouldn’t be scared. I’d be like, ‘Man, let’s go.’ I had my prayer all laid out in my head. ‘Lord, send me wherever You want to send me.’ I’d mention Africa, India, New York but the sort of silent, unconscious prayer was, ‘But Lord, please don’t make me stay here in the Southeast.”

Neither Abbey nor Isaac, a 2019 graduate of Mississippi College, planned on New Orleans. But gradually, God began working on their hearts.

“Here I was, so sure that I didn’t want to stay in the south,” Isaac said. “I wanted to be on the front lines in the Middle East. Not being a youth pastor at some church in South Mississippi. But the Lord convicted my heart, and that’s when I was willing to give up my notion of myself. It wasn’t this thing where I heard this whisper for God. It was just like maturing to where I knew that to obey Him, I had to give up what I wanted for my life and take on what He wanted for me.”

For Abbey, that happened around her second week of that GenSend Summer trip.

“God just started doing some hardcore work in my life,” she said. “Breaking down my heart, little by little, He was tearing down the walls I had put up and taking away my comfort zones. By the end of that summer, I’d fallen in love with the people and the city and was ready to move to New Orleans after graduating the next year.”

Abbey can recall the moment that God used as a catalyst for her heart change. It was during the summer trip while she was with a group that walked past one of the places where the levees had collapsed during Hurricane Katrina.

The tapestries that contain messages from survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans caught Journeyman Abbey Caudill’s heart and reminded her of an earlier love she had for the city.

“I saw these tapestries, and they stretched way down the walkway. They had names of people who had lost everything, but on the back of the tapestries, it said, ‘But we didn’t die.’ I saw that and just started bawling. It was like God reminded me of that little 10-year old girl who had such a broken heart for the city. It was like that came back to me.”

Isaac’s time as a youth ministry mentee at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi, along with his familiarity with GenSend deposited in him a desire for church planting and an openness to return to New Orleans to serve.

Ironically, when Send Relief Missionary Jeremy Simmons was looking for ideal Journeyman candidates for the New Orleans Ministry Center, it was their ministry experience and familiarity in a place they once couldn’t wait to leave that tipped the scale.

“Both of them came out of the GenSend world,” Simmons said. “Both of them have great experiences here in New Orleans, and they really see their time here as sort of long range. That helps.”

Abbey will spend much of her time on the logistics of mobilizing volunteers, while Isaac will work to mobilize people into ministry through identifying needs in the city and creating opportunities to address those needs.

But he’s also seeing this opportunity as a chance to fall in love with the city all over again, even as he keeps an eye on church planting after his time as a Journeyman is done.

“It’s the next step of obedience for me,” he said. It’s dying to self and answering the call of God on my life.”

Gabriel Stovall writes for Send Relief.