‘Prayer walk’ reveals the isolation of the forgotten

Peter Finney Jr.    It was just past midnight on Halloween when the fusillade of bullets in the French Quarter turned New Orleans into Afghanistan.
    The blood spilled in the streets can’t be washed away easily by reassurances from city leaders and tourism spin doctors that these acts of violence were “isolated” – that is, sporadic or every now and then or just a case of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
    The blood spilled – two more young African-American males shot dead and 11 others wounded in separate shootings on Bourbon Street and Canal Street – sent another horrifying message that there is no silver bullet in ending the culture of violence in a city whose eight-cylinder financial engine is seven cylinders tourism.
    The saddest reality of life in New Orleans today is that shootings like these occur virtually every other day in Bywater and the 7th Ward and the Lower 9 – not exactly go-to spots for air-conditioned tour buses and horse-drawn buggies. The tragedy is we have grown so numb to the carnage that the news value of another life lost usually translates into 300 words in The Times-Picayune and 30 seconds on the 10 o’clock news.
    And, turning to other news, did you see that Drew Brees went 31-of-35 for 325 yards and five touchdowns?
    A large percentage of the shootings are retaliation killings, a form of street justice by those who have seen a friend murdered and have felt compelled to answer with more murder.
    More despair. More crime. More sin.
    So what, in the name of God, can be done?
    I took a walk through the Lower 9th Ward last Friday night for 2 1/2 hours with a few pastors from different denominations who are trying to make sense of what’s going on. The Micah Project, which organized the activity, calls these meandering journeys through the dark streets “prayer walks.”
    The interesting thing is that though the interaction with people at bus stops, on front porches or in front of the corner bar usually ends with a prayer, the real prayer resonates in the plaintive despair expressed by weary residents who feel trapped, insignificant and irrelevant.
    Talk about “isolated.”
    Close your eyes and you can hear them proclaiming Psalm 42:10: “I will say to God, my rock: ‘Why do you forget me? Why must I go about mourning with the enemy oppressing me?’”
    James (not his real name) went to prison for selling drugs and has been back in the neighborhood for three years. He tenuously holds a job as a day laborer, but he’s trying to hang on and stay straight. At 43, his patience is wearing thin.
    “My daddy used to call me a microwave person,” James said. In other words, he struggles with the long term.
    “I don’t feel like I’m fully turned around,” James said. “I have a pastor who let me speak my testimony. It wasn’t no ‘sermon’ level or reading out of the Bible, but I quoted certain scriptures. If we just had faith like Job had, that would be good. But I know how hard it is to pay the water bill and the light bill and then you have your old lady fussing at you. Your grandma needs this and your auntie needs that. I’m trying to stay positive, but sometimes you get kicked in the face and pushed back. That’s the reason my faith is a little shaky.”
    Deacon Allen Stevens of St. Peter Claver once worked in a homeless shelter, and he said he would come across people like James all the time – intelligent and willing to look honestly at their mistakes. Deacon Stevens said if more resources could be targeted toward education and job training for ex-offenders, it would reduce crime and violence.
    “The majority of the crime committed in the community is by ex-offenders,” Deacon Stevens said. “We can walk the streets all we want, but if we don’t do anything to help these brothers and sisters who are coming out of the system to change their mind set and get a job and get back with their families and into church, it’s not going to help.”
    Josephite Father Anthony Bozeman, pastor of St. Raymond-St. Leo the Great, said when he first heard James rationalizing some of his past crimes, “I was condemning him.”
    “And then I was condemning myself,” Father Bozeman said. “I do the exact same thing, just not to that same degree.”
    On Halloween night, while his neighbor “Tilly” was being shot and killed on Bourbon Street, a St. David parishioner had stocked up on candy to pass out. Only four kids stopped by his house. Sam Bonart Playground, which occupies a full city block at Marais and Lizardi streets and has served as a great place for teens to blow off some steam, was pitch black last Friday night.
    “It’s hard to stop this cycle,” another resident said, citing his friends’ wide distrust of the police. “If you do something to someone, their family or friends are going to want to kill you. That’s the bottom line. If the police don’t arrest you, you’re going to get killed.”
    Tom Costanza, the director of the archdiocesan Office of Justice and Peace, said one man told him that after he had returned from prison, his neighborhood friend was murdered. Everyone in the neighborhood knew who did it.
    “I could have retaliated, but I didn’t,” the man said. “I learned in the prison boot camp program to think ‘for one second before you act.’”
    “Sometimes, that one second and one relationship can stop retaliation,” Costanza said.
    There is no silver bullet. But there is absolutely no chance unless the church leaves its buildings and hits the streets. 
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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