From church to mosque, a search for NOLA peace

A $2.5 million proposal jointly presented to the Casey Family Foundation by 38 faith communities, including 12 Catholic church parishes, to support church-based peace initiatives in the Greater New Orleans area is an important step in addressing violence and other social ills, said project coordinator Joseph Givens.

But while the churches wait to see if their proposal is approved, Givens told more than 30 pastors and representatives of churches, mosques and synagogues that they must band together, regardless of any funding, to enhance each other’s efforts.

“We’ve been on a yearlong journey to bring our congregations and communities of faith into a much greater role in bringing peace to our city,” Givens, executive director of the Isaiah Institute, told the church leaders at a Feb. 12 meeting at Stronger Hope Baptist Church in New Orleans. “We’re in the same city, the same neighborhoods, the same community, with the same struggle for peace.”

Last November at Dillard University, the congregations signed a “covenant” pledging themselves to combat violence and the culture of death through the NOLA Interfaith Peace Initiative. Archbishop Gregory Aymond signed the covenant for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Each congregation worked on a specific plan for its own neighborhood, and those plans were submitted to the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, which consolidated them into a unified plan in January.

The National Urban League, headed by former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, requested peace proposals from three cities – New Orleans, Louisville and Seattle – which would then be sent to the Casey Family Foundation for funding. The proposals from each city are being reviewed.

Neighborhoods work it out
Givens said what he likes about the New Orleans plan is that it drills down into the neighborhood, which was the secret of the success of All Congregations Together in the 1990s in reducing crime and violence.

The idea of “subsidiarity” comes straight from Scripture, Givens said, referring to the Book of Nehemiah, when the prophet talked about rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

“He said, ‘Take care of your own neighborhood. Fix what is in front of your house, but stand next to each other in support of one another,’” Givens said. “That’s what guided us through this process. We decided we were going to look at what was in front of our congregations, focus on them and stand next to each other in support of one another.”

Ashley Shelton of One Voice, a statewide advocacy group, said the Seattle plan focuses almost exclusively on workforce development. The New Orleans and Louisville plans are similar to each other in that they engage the faith communities in mentoring, education and post-incarceration efforts.

New relationships forged
Givens said one of the benefits of coming together to forge a plan has been the creation of new relationships among pastors and imams who live in the same general area but have had no contact with each other. The faith leaders hold monthly prayer services and meetings.

“That’s why this is important,” Given said.

“Our plan lifts up the needs for engagement and enhancement of activities for young people,” Shelton said. “We were able to lift up jobs. We want to offer rehabilitation services for folks who have been in prison and are coming out of prison. You wanted real, everyday people to get involved in their communities.”

The next step will be in March, when Cities United will host a conference in New Orleans to look at peace-building initiatives undertaken in New Orleans and around the country. Givens expects that the Casey Family Foundation, which also funded the city’s NOLA for Life program, will want to speak to church representatives about the NOLA Interfaith Peace Initiative.

“They want to find out more about the faith community – that we’re real, not just a link in a newspaper,” Givens said. “They want to put a face on the community.”

Imam Wayne Nurridin, a Muslim cleric with Masjid Bilal, said the joint momentum established by the churches must continue.

“I don’t think we can afford to wait until we’re funded,” he said. “Young men are dying as we speak. This relates to a long-term commitment to saving lives, and it flows from that commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Let us not procrastinate and shrink from the task at hand, just because someone decided to give us a lot of money or a little money. Our responsibilities are enormous, but our God-given resources are enormous.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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