Marvin Watts, who had done everything within his power to become a survivor rather than a statistic, was gunned down inside his car on Saturday night, June 11, just steps from Archbishop Gregory Aymond’s residence on Carrollton and Walmsley avenues.
Watts was 22, but that weekend his tragic death testified to another chilling number – he was one of four people murdered in New Orleans in a span of 17 hours.
Watts’ killing – the murderer likely was a passenger in his car who fled on foot and has not been apprehended – is the latest searing reminder that turning the tide of the “new” Battle of New Orleans, Archbishop Aymond’s proclaimed offensive against violence, murder and racism in New Orleans, requires a commitment that moves beyond prayer toward action by an engaged and outraged community.
Watts had a contagious, 200-watt smile, and his personality and work ethic during a 12-week hospitality-training program at Café Reconcile, where he learned the rudiments of the restaurant business, exuded future success.
Watts was running warp speed from a troubled background. He delivered the graduation speech for his classmates after earning a cherished graduate equivalency diploma in 2010. Riding his bicycle from Metairie to Central City every day, he sailed through the training program at Café Reconcile to land a job as an apprentice with chef John Besh at Restaurant August.
Michael Gulotta, chef de cuisine at Restaurant August, said Watts never missed work. Sometimes Watts confessed to Gulotta that he had spent the previous night sleeping in his car, but he always showed up in a clean jacket and pants. In a kitchen filled with prodigies who had studied for years in culinary school, Watts had to decipher lingo he had never heard and outwork everyone in the kitchen just to stay even.
A week before his death, Deacon Paul Augustin, who mentored Watts during his training at Café Reconcile and took him to Hornets games with his own son, said they stopped to talk in the parking lot. Watts proudly showed Deacon Augustin the compact silver Saturn he was now driving, his insurance card and his up-to-date tax form.
“The last thing he said to me was, ‘Deacon Paul, can you teach me how to be a good father to my son like you are to your son?’” Deacon Augustin said. “Marvin had a 3-year-old son. Now, there’s another kid without a father.”
Deacon Augustin had left his cell phone in a drawer at home on Sunday afternoon, so he had no idea when he was preaching at the Sunday evening Mass at St. Luke the Evangelist in Slidell that Watts had been killed. As he took off his dalmatic after Mass, Besh’s teenage son Brendan, who had attended the Mass, came running up with a cell phone in his hand, shouting, “Marvin’s been shot!”
John Besh was on the other end of the phone.
“I was thinking, ‘Wounded … needs blood … needs money … fix this,’” Deacon Augustin said. “I got on the phone and asked John, ‘What’s his condition?’ He said, ‘Marvin’s dead. I’m sorry. I thought you knew.’ And then John told me, ‘Marvin really loved you.’ I fell on my knees and started weeping. I wept more when Marvin died than when my own father died.”
Presentation Sister Mary Lou Specha, who runs Café Reconcile, got the word of Watts’ murder as she stepped out of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church in New Orleans following an invigorating Pentecost Sunday liturgy. She was flying high. Then she looked at her cell phone, which had exploded with messages, “and I knew something was wrong.”
Every interaction that she had had with Watts – the weeks he returned to Café Reconcile as an unpaid volunteer while waiting for his first paid job to come through, the times he took new interns under his wing to show them the ropes – all came rushing back.
Then, anger flooded every pore. Here was another kid who had done everything right – who had followed the recipe with trust and precision – dead.
Someone asked Sister Mary Lou, “Where do you go from here?”
“That’s a good question, because after his death I threw up my arms and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this anymore,’” she said. “The violence in the city is just destroying me more and more. I’m glad the archbishop incorporated the prayer for an end to violence, but we really have to do more. It’s everybody’s responsibility in New Orleans, not just people who are working with kids. We have to build coalitions to give kids economic opportunities.
“One of our young people asked me, ‘Sister, why is it easier for me to get a gun than a job?’”
Café Reconcile has graduated scores of young people who are now gainfully employed in the restaurant business. Sister Mary Lou says it will take the community, especially the Catholic community, to provide more opportunities for kids who haven’t had many in life.
“One of our young guys said, ‘We need a plan. We need to work together,’” Sister Mary Lou said. “These kids want to be part of the solution. They don’t want to die. They fear for their lives, too.
“Every day you wake up and there’s two more people murdered, the same age as Marvin, and we just become numb to it. When I say I throw up my arms and I can’t do this anymore, I have to tell myself I’m not doing this for myself but for God. God is asking me to do this. It’s a huge, difficult job, and the emotional stress is stifling.”
But then she sees Café Reconcile graduates as employees of the month at the best restaurants around town, and there is hope. “Those restaurants have stepped up, and now they have to step it up even more,” she said.
When Deacon Augustin went to Café Reconcile on the Monday morning after Watts’ murder, he thought he might be able to minister to the kids by sitting and talking. Instead, they ministered to him. He couldn’t stop weeping.
After relating the story of his perceived powerlessness, one of his friends told him later that day: “Think about it this way. The kids there saw a middle-aged white guy weeping for the death of a brother. That’s probably the best witness you could give.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.