By Jim Burton
NEW ORLEANS — Ryan Rice once despised the church. Then he found love.
Growing up in greater New Orleans, an aunt read the Bible to him. Rice found the stories about Jesus fascinating.
“I was the kid who raised his hand to answer every Bible question,” Rice said of his early exposure to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School.
When he turned 8 years old, his mother married a man who was an abuser and drug user. As a child just discovering the Bible, he learned about the dark side of life, and he asked a big question for a child, “Where is God?”
In middle school, his mother dragged him to church.
“I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘This is the worst thing ever. I hate church. I hate the people here.’ That was coming from a lot of hurt,” Rice said.
That hurt remained as he grew to become a popular and handsome athlete who was the high school student council president. On the outside, Rice appeared to have his life together.
“From every aspect of my life, I was empty on the inside,” Rice said. “I was just broken.”
Then he met Seane’ Smooth and her father, Andrew Honore. On the first day of his freshman year at Dillard University in New Orleans, he saw Smooth and knew she was special. Smooth began praying for him. Rice met Honore when he visited Smooth’s home in nearby Slidell and attended church with her family. Honore led his future son-in-law to Christ during Rice’s sophomore year.
“I knew a couple of months after I came to faith in Christ that God was calling me to preach,” Rice said. “I didn’t know what that meant. I had no clue. What does it mean to be called?”
A Jonah experience
After college, Rice and Smooth married, and he began a career in insurance. They were living in Baton Rouge–just 90 miles north of New Orleans. Through prayer, he understood God to be directing him to serve in the children’s ministry at church.
“The ministry had been praying for more guys to serve with the children,” Rice said.
The pastor began discipling him, which furthered his understanding of God’s call in his life.
“It started with me being obedient to serve in my church,” Rice said.
But as he sensed a call to plant a church in his Algiers childhood neighborhood on New Orleans’s west bank, he still battled God.
“I can totally relate to Jonah,” Rice said. “I had this call, even desire, but I didn’t want to go. It was a reluctant kind of thing.”
Rice didn’t go to the Tarshish of old. Instead, He went to Michigan to interview with a church needing a children’s pastor. During the interview a pastor randomly asked him this question, “When are you going to church plant?”
Then Rice knew that he had to go home to his Nineveh.
“God has given us the green light of the gospel to go to a place that is without hope and in need of hope. I’m sold. I said yes,” Rice said. “One day I had no desire to move to New Orleans or Algiers. Then one day I did.”
Life Church New Orleans
The Rices soon found themselves in post-Katrina Algiers with no place to live. An apartment complex owned by a Christian company invited them to live and minister there. At the first outreach event, they gave away 110 book bags with school supplies.
“The people we connected with were so hungry for something more,” Rice said. “They were hungry for truth.”
Rice found that the people in his community were at the same place he had been as a teenager.
“People were a lot like me when I was in the churchy world,” Rice said. “They know things about God and call themselves spiritual.”
After months of cultivation, Life Church New Orleans launched in September 2014. By January, weekly services began.
Most attendees are people they met prayerwalking in Algiers. An Easter outreach also connected them to scores of prospects–many of whom had some type of experience with church but had never made a profession of faith in Christ. The Easter outreach hit another nerve with Algiers residents.
“Anything that is free and is the church blows people away,” Rice said.
Already, they are seeing some dramatic events. Rice met a military couple with two kids at the Easter outreach. She was raised Southern Baptist; he was an animist. One night during Bible study, the wife said, “I’m not a Christian. This is the first time that I’m realizing that I’m not born again.”
Rice led her to Christ, and the husband soon made the same decision.
“That whole next generation is going to be different because their parents are following Jesus,” Rice said.
Istrouma Baptist Church in Baton Rouge wanted to find a way to be engaged in New Orleans. As soon as they met the Rices, they knew that the couple was right for the job.
“After our meeting with Ryan we immediately said, ‘That’s the guy,’” said Istrouma missions pastor Dwayne Pitre. “We chose to support Ryan because we believe in what God is doing through him. He has a strong faith, knows his calling, preaches God’s Word, he is outreach oriented, has a positive solution-seeking attitude and is passionate about ministering to people in New Orleans. He is evangelizing, baptizing and making disciples. People matter to him.”
Rice returned to a different Algiers than the one he knew as a child. Crime has gone up since Hurricane Katrina as many new people have moved in from New Orleans. He also sees some extreme socioeconomic disparity. He points to Appaloosa Street, a main Algiers thoroughfare, where on one side of the street the median household income is an estimated $80,000. The other side is at or below the poverty level.
Rice is new to Southern Baptist life, and he has quickly grown to appreciate the financial support he’s receiving–particularly through the Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering®.
“Because of people giving, we’ve been able to be supported, make sure our kids are supported, and be sure that we can go forth and do the work that God wants us to do without hindrances,” Rice said.
The goal for the 2016 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is $70 million. To learn more about the Week of Prayer, the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and how your church can be mobilized to push back lostness in North America, visit www.anniearmstrong.com. To read about the other 2016 featured missionaries, visit www.anniearmstrong.com/missionaries-2016.
Jim Burton is a photojournalist and writer living in Atlanta.