The gift of presence in the heart of Gert Town

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

For Santa Claus, it was only a couple of flesh wounds.

In a city where collateral damage and shooting statistics roll forward like the numbers on the national debt clock in New York City’s Times Square, what happened on Easter weekend in New Orleans should force anyone with a conscience to stop ducking and sit up and take notice.

One of those “statistics” in six separate shooting incidents over Easter did not die. However, the unmistakable sound of gunshots hit home for the Dominican Sisters of Peace, who since 2014 have operated The Peace Center at 2837 Broadway St.

Just a block away from the center, one of the men befriended by the sisters over the last several years – and who had dressed up as Santa Claus at the center’s Christmas party for kids last December – was wounded in the arm and the leg in a night-time, drive-by shooting outside a corner bar.

“He was the best Santa we’ve had,” said Sister Pat Thomas. “He knows some of the young adults in the area, and he’s referred a few folks to us. He’s really tried to talk about this place.”

Sister Pat saw the man’s Easter wounds, wrapped in white.

“He’s OK,” she said. “They were flesh wounds, and allegedly he and his buddy were running away. I talked to him the Monday after, but I could tell he was still sort of loopy, so I didn’t want to ask him too many questions. That was the first major (shooting) in a long time. That’s kind of sad.”

Sister Pat and Sister Suzanne Brauer live on the second floor of a former grocery store, whose ground floor has been converted into a safe haven with an open floor plan, where elementary students gather after school, Monday through Friday, to complete homework assignments with the help of the sisters and volunteers from Xavier University of Louisiana and St. Mary’s Dominican High School and other community members.

Additionally, Sister Ceal Warner, who lives in the next block, offers spiritual direction and individual counseling to anyone who requests it. Since the center deals largely with neighborhood seniors from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. – before the kids walk in with their book bags – Sister Ceal came up with the idea to organize “no-frills” bingo, with winners receiving inexpensive gift cards to Save-A-Lot or Walgreen’s.

Sister Pat usually calls the numbers for bingo. “They’re little balls, and they have big cards,” she said, smiling. “They’ll keep telling me, ‘You should have called that number the last time!’”

The Peace Center has staked out its spot in Gert Town, which Sister Pat says has been described as “the most forgotten neighborhood in the city.” This Chamber of Commerce designation cannot be changed overnight, which is why the three nuns are resolved to show the power of presence in the face of daunting challenges and perhaps even unbelief.

“Somebody said early on when things were moving pretty slowly, ‘The people don’t trust you yet’ – in that they weren’t sure if we were going to stay,” Sister Ceal said. “That’s because a lot of people came in after Katrina, and then they left. They were mistrusting that we’re going to stay, not mistrusting us as individuals.”

The sisters network on foot. They regularly walk the neighborhood and hand-deliver an updated newsletter describing the center’s services, such as computer classes and job readiness skills and highlighting the stories of some of the participating residents. The sisters have always felt safe, never threatened.

“There’s a tremendous respect and admiration for the Catholic Church and for the sisters because (the Blessed Sacrament) sisters have lived in their neighborhood before,” Sister Pat said. “When we’re going up and down the street, they’ll wave to us.”

“Seeing the children outside playing gets them to say we must be OK,” Sister Suzanne said, smiling.

Still, the sisters would love to welcome more children and seniors. When they took the seniors to lunch at Landry’s restaurant on the lakefront, they arranged for a tour of the adjacent lighthouse.

“One of the men told us, ‘Thank you so much. It makes me feel like a normal person,’” Sister Ceal said.

The sisters will fill out grant applications for extra goodies. They got 15 Jazz Fest tickets from the festival’s foundation.

“You have to write in and say you’re a bonafide organization and you’re not doing this for money and you’re not going to resell the tickets, but it’s worth it,” Sister Suzanne said. “I’ll jump through hoops if that’s what it takes.”

They visited one elderly woman in her home when it was 95 degrees outside and hotter inside.

“She was very glad to have the conversation,” Sister Suzanne said.

When the sisters have to send their kids home each afternoon at 5:30, the children invariably want to stay longer.

“Why do you have to go upstairs and eat?” they will ask.

The sisters are planning one-week summer camps for girls and boys. They hope the new NORD Natatorium in Gert Town will open in June.

As for the violence to which the neighborhood is subjected, Sister Suzanne said the residents “don’t pose it in terms of feeling safe.”

“It’s more along the lines of, ‘We feel sorry for this mother’s son, and we’re sorry that the violence is so prevalent,’” Sister Suzanne said.

Taking the long view

Assessing their ministry on a daily basis, the sisters realize they sometimes have to sit back and view the larger picture.

“Sometimes we beat ourselves up because we don’t feel like we’ve done enough, but then somebody will come along and say, ‘Now how long have you been here?’ and we’ll say, ‘Three and a half years,’” Sister Pat said. “That’s kind of like a wakeup call. All three of us have goals and things we want to do and feel sort of bad we haven’t done them yet, but in the midst of all this other stuff, we are seeing things develop.”

Sometimes it’s doing things that would seem simple to the other side of the world – the world outside of Gert Town –  like securing an email address for a client searching for a job.

“Of course, they have to come to the center and check it, and that’s a way of keeping in touch with them,” Sister Pat said.

The shootings – what Sister Pat calls “the new norm” – pale in comparison to the feeling among 18- to 35-year-olds – “whether they are black, white or whatever” – that their age group “is on their own.”

“There is kind of a sense of hopelessness, like we’re always a little bit like Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill and it keeps coming back down,” Sister Pat said. “They’ll get three steps ahead, and then they meet the red tape, they meet the bureaucracy, they meet their criminal record, they meet their educational level.”

But then, the sisters will see Dominican students such as Makayla Anderson and Xavier students such as Brennan Hull, a member of Xavier’s Men on the Move, come to the center to do homework and play flag football weekly with the children.

“I hope they understand what it’s doing by having them here,” Sister Pat said.

The volunteer tutor pool usually thins out in late April and early May because the Dominican and Xavier students are preparing for exams. So, who will step up?

Hull, a political science major at Xavier who will graduate in December, is planning to go to law school. He might do personal injury work – “one call, that’s all” – like his dad.

Last week, Hull was tossing the football with children on the vacant lot across the street from the center.

“These kids remind me of me, especially Jay, the one with the black and white Nikes,” Hull said. “He’s got so much energy, and he’s always goofy. That’s exactly how I was as a kid. He reminds me exactly of myself.”

Every time Hull sees Jay, he offers this message to his younger me: “Just being African American in today’s society is always one thing we have to overcome. So, it’s  about putting your best foot forward and just giving it your all – giving it everything you’ve got, just trying to be your best, really.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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