Sixty congregations of different faiths have banded together in New Orleans to take back their city from crime, drugs and violence. In one of the roughest neighborhoods in town, courageous people are winning the day.
Faith Fights Drugs and Violence
All Congregations Together
Text and photos by John Feister

This article appeared in the November 1995 edition of St. Anthony Messenger. In the years since this story was written, the parish and the neighborhood continued to make great strides toward safety and a healthier community. On the last days of August, 2005, the neighborhood, flooded by breaches in surrounding levees, suffered incredible damage. This article offers a look back at what was.

The Times Picayune, largest newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana, took notice of All Congregations Together back in January 1993. An editorial called this power-from-the-pews organization "a grassroots political force unlike anything seen before in New Orleans's history." In the state where Huey P. Long's 1910's populism became a national legend, that's saying something. But it's only part of the story.

Yes, it's very significant that this coalition of 60 congregations—Catholics, Protestants, Jews, numbering 150,000—is wielding clout in City Hall. The mayor's office can't ignore rallies of 4,000 vocal citizens demanding changes in drug enforcement, the police force, building inspection, public housing, practically every facet of community service that affects their neighborhoods.

But the better story is what's happening in some of the most fear-filled neighborhoods in the city. The old folks are starting to come out-of-doors again—at least during daytime. Once-feared young people are stopping for friendly talk, sometimes. Some of the best New Orleans police—the "Community-Oriented Policing Squad"—are choosing to work in these neighborhoods every day and get to know folks. And many of the drug dealers and gangs are losing influence, at least for the present. That might mean hope that today's youth there will grow up safer and more drug-free.

St. Mary of the Angels gospel choir

St. Mary of the Angels Parish in the lower Ninth Ward is proof of the success of All Congregations Together (ACT). In a neighborhood most New Orleanians—including taxi drivers—wouldn't drive into if you paid them, things seemed bleak indeed only a few years ago. The neighborhood has deteriorated steadily since New Orleans's economic downturn of the 1970's. The school at this Franciscan parish, once seen as a means of moving up in the world, declined a little each year in enrollment and public perception. House after house was boarded up and left to the crack addicts. But all that is changing now.

The Funeral

There could be no starker contrast of hope and agony than what awaited us at St. Mary's on Labor Day weekend just weeks ago. The bells were tolling for 17-year-old Dan Anthony Cavalier, drummer in St. Mary of the Angels Gospel Choir, who had been murdered in a senseless act the preceding Friday. In a nearby neighborhood two young men had stolen a car and run into him, leaving him pinned against a tree to die. No one knew why they killed Dan. The family only knew, from notes found among his belongings, that he had begun a personal campaign of charity—reaching out to his hurting friends with acts of compassion.

Hundreds of youth and older people filled the church for Dan's funeral. Father Bart Pax, O.F.M., St. Mary's pastor, says that the youth poured in from surrounding neighborhoods, and most of them were unfamiliar to parishioners. Some were angry youth gang members. Yet all the teens found, at St. Mary's, a safe place to grieve and express their shock and despair. Father Bart and the parish youth minister, Valerie Shields, along with Dan's parents and fellow parishioners, spent the hours before the funeral listening to the hurt, hugging one sobbing teen, then turning to hug another. These teens have seen a lot of friends die.

They're part of a larger trend. "Juvenile Offenders and Victims: A National Report," released in September by the U.S. Justice Department, says that juveniles are now responsible for one in five crimes; that during the past decade the number of gun-related murders among juveniles has increased five-fold; that a fourth of juvenile victims are killed by other juveniles. The formative years of life have become dangerous for a growing number of children everywhere.

During Dan Cavalier's funeral, says Father Bart, "Dan's parents ministered to the young people. They talked them out of revenge, from hunting the culprits down and returning the violence. They told the kids that Dan would not have wanted that. And the kids listened."

Making a Difference

Dan's grandmother, Anna Cavalier, is one of the founding ACT members at St. Mary of the Angels. In her late 50's, she had experienced enough fear and violence when then-pastor Mike Doerflein, O.F.M., told her about the All Congregations Together program in 1991. "I remember when we could leave the doors open in this neighborhood," she says. Then she tells of how her home a few miles away was broken into and she was hit over the head. She reaches into her pocketbook and pulls out two mementos: a nail from a parish Lenten program and a bullet she dug out of her house wall.

Anna, who retired as a physical therapy assistant, talks about the mood in the neighborhood before they started the ACT program: "We were afraid of the children," she recalls. "If a child was coming down the sidewalk, I would cross the street." And if she saw a drug deal or other crime happening, "you didn't know who to tell." Police were rarely present in the neighborhood, and residents didn't trust police when they showed up. One thing seemed certain: No one was safe.

During the 1980's some St. Mary's parishioners had started a neighborhood group but membership declined. So Anna and others were willing to try something new when their pastor recruited them.

St. Mary's had the best turnout—about 35 parishioners—among the congregations who were represented at that 1991 ACT meeting. They learned about the ACT model of neighborhood change, developed at the Church-funded Pacific Institute for Community Organization in California: Listen to the needs of the local community again and again. Set goals that parishioners will get behind. Use the existing parish organization and parish leadership to make things happen. Help the parish achieve its goal of being a vital presence in its own neighborhood.

They also learned that ACT in New Orleans is receiving substantial support from the U.S. bishops' Campaign for Human Development. "We didn't know what we were doing, but we wanted to make a difference," recalls Anna.

What happened next is remarkable. During the one-on-one listening sessions that are key in the ACT program, people in the parish started to see things in a new light. Older parishioners asked young people in the neighborhood to sit down and talk with them. "Our faith gave us the nerve to step out," recalls Doris Fortune, a parishioner who drives a bus for the public schools.

The older people were surprised to learn that their fearful behavior had its own effect. Young people spoke of how they resented being treated like outcasts when people crossed the street to avoid them. Anna recalls with a smile, "You should have seen their faces after the fear left, and they understood why we feared them!"

Fighting Crack Houses

St. Mary of the Angels Parish, through the listening process ACT helped them to set up, chose the top neighborhood issues they would work to solve. "I was a little shy, not like I am now," recalls Lucille McCormick, a homeowner who has been in the parish for 27 years. But she was called on during those early months by Father Mike and Friar David Donovan. They interviewed her about what neighborhood problems were bothering her. Then they asked her and other parishioners to contact others and do the same.

What she heard from other homeowners confirmed her desire to see dings change: People were fed up with the large number of abandoned houses in the lower Ninth Ward. Many of these houses had become magnets for crime, where crack addicts would hang out to do drugs. Overgrown grass and weeds made sidewalks impassible. Residents were also very concerned about absence of adequate police protection. Two huge, crime-ridden public housing projects are only a few blocks ay in either direction. The police seemed to have given up on enforcing the law, as nightly machine-gun fights reminded everyone.

"In my mind I imagined us being disciples," recalls Lucille as she walks home from St. Mary's, pointing out the progress the ACT effort has made. "We went out to visit the overgrown lots and the whole neighborhood cleared the lots off."

The local organizing committee at St. Mary's, including Lucille, developed a list of 140 abandoned houses—including a crack house near St. Mary of the Angels Elementary School—and prioritized 25 of them as the worst. Other parishioners began to research what offices in city government could be held accountable. The committee arranged for face-to-face meetings with key city officials. City government was well aware that these parishioners had the backing of what was growing into a citywide organization. One by one, the City of New Orleans began the legal steps of condemning property and then demolishing abandoned houses. Half on the original priority list of 25 were demolished within the first six months!

Neighborhood "hot spots," sites where drugs were sold or other illegal activity took place, were identified and reported to the district police captain, Mitchell Dussett. In the back of church was a black box where people could leave anonymous tips without fear of reprisal.

During a walk through the neighborhood with Lucille and St. Mary's parishioner Paula Arceneau, one senses the changes that are taking place. Beautifully kept homes contrast with neighboring blight, but there are many clean, neat lots. Stopping at one lot that is horribly overgrown, the women explain the struggle local residents have had with an absentee owner. Challenged by the city to clean up the lot, he came and mowed a small portion. The sidewalk is still blocked by overgrown weeds and a pile of tires.

A woman comes from her house across the street to talk. "It's not that I haven't tried," she says with exasperation. She has called the city repeatedly, even called a local TV station, "but we're getting nowhere." Lucille, who is meeting this woman for the first time, tells her that she lives nearby and knows the problem. Lucille assures her that the ACT committee will get something done: "We will get to the main source!" she promises.

The "main source" is what ACT has so successfully identified in New Orleans. Citizens who are living with the problems are organized to the point where the highest political powers will listen. In last year's mayoral race in this city of one-half million, both candidates signed the goals of ACT's "Vision 98" statement. That vision, in addition to anti-drug and employment goals, includes a goal of replacing 5,000 of the city's 37,000 abandoned homes with safe and affordable housing. "We will not accept a city in chaos," reads ACT's one-page statement. "We claim the right to live without fear; the right to live in a city with opportunity; the right to live with dignity and respect."

Paula Arceneau remembers that Vision 98 statement as a key moment in the remarkable growth of the ACT organization in New Orleans. Each ACT congregation brought a stack of signed petitions to the mayor's office—60,000 signatures total. An office manager in city government, Paula grew up in housing projects and now lives in a house a few blocks away from St. Mary of the Angels. "White people got scared of this neighborhood and left—and I don't blame them!" she says. "If we don't do anything about it, criminals will ruin the whole city!"

Lucille and Paula agree that ACT has given them something they didn't have before: the know-how to work the political system and get things changed. One major result of that is the change that came with community policing.

A Heroic Cop

Driving through the Desire Street public housing project early Saturday morning with this writer in his cruiser, Lieutenant Edwin Compass III is flagged down passing a fire station. A firefighter points out a car that has been parked near the fire station on the edge of the housing project for over a week, and wants it removed. Perhaps noticing a reporter's notebook, the firefighter comments to Lt. Compass, "You guys are doing a great job. I can't believe the difference since you started community policing. It's even safe to hang up the mops outside again!"

Pulling away, Lt. Compass points out that the fire station garage doors are open now. They were never open before the community policing program began earlier this year. Too many bullets were flying around from semi­automatic weapons used in drug­related violence in Desire project. On the way to the Desire project police station, the lieutenant radios to his dispatcher for a tow truck to remove the abandoned car.

Lt. Compass is commander of New Orleans's Community-Oriented Policing Squad, a new federally funded approach to policing. ACT staff had learned of a successful community policing program in Oakland, California. They encouraged the New Orleans Police Department to send officers there for training. Mitchell Dussett, now assistant superintendent to the chief of police for New Orleans, deserves credit for starting the program, says Lt. Compass, who was top-ranked in his police training class. "This is my dream come true," Compass says. To be on foot in the community, to have positive relations with neighborhood people rather than fear, to be a positive role model for young people: These are the reasons he entered the police force years ago.

Compass, two of whose children attend a Catholic high school, draws on his Catholic faith to do his job. "I told the men on the first day that we started that this wasn't going to be a typical police assignment." Going into the city's most violent areas to pull the community together against well­armed drug dealers is downright dangerous. "We stood together that first day and prayed for each other," Lt. Compass explains.

The Desire project, for example, four blocks from St. Mary of the Angels, was profiled in The New York Times earlier this year as one of the most dangerous and run-down housing projects in the United States. Half of the 97-acre project is boarded up. Three thousand people, mostly single mothers and their children, live where 6,000 people lived 10 years ago. Decay and violence led to a steady exodus. Now the federal government has begun to demob apartments. The remainder will be gutted and rebuilt. Tenants will remain during the renovation.

The Community-Oriented Policing Squad opened offices in abandoned apartments in several housing and maintains police presence a day. The squad's measurable in reducing crime has been phenomenal. In the housing projects, children are playing outside for the first years. In the area around St. Mary's, including the housing projects, were 26 murders in 1994. During there has been one to date.

Lt. Compass's first act was to remove graffiti from the "Wall of Fame," an apartment wall listing names murdered gang members. "That glorifying gang violence for the people," Compass explains.

When Lt. Compass stops for a moment at the Desire police station, a group of grade-schoolers in karate outfits runs up to greet him. This morning they will be taking lessons in the martial-arts program he started: "It teaches discipline, self-esteem sense of spirituality," he explains. To learn martial arts, one must learn to respect oneself and work to unify goals of spirit and body.

Compass and his police will continue the program at least through 1996, but are unsure of the future beyond that. Community policing is or programs slated for elimination in the federal budget battle.

Key Factor: Catholic School

St. Mary of the Angels schoolchildren

With life-and-death matters it may seem odd that ACT's local organizing committee at St. Mary of the Angels has made the survival of St. Mary's elementary school one of it's top priorities this year. But parishioners see the school as essential for St. Mary's to be everything it can and should be in the lower Ninth Ward. Says parishioner Joyce Fauria: "The school is like a beacon that keeps the neighborhood together." Indeed, it is a symbol of hope that neighborhood children will receive a good education in a safe environment.

When the ACT staff realized what a critical issue St. Mary of the Angels School was to the local community—the last Catholic school in the area where there were once four—they put their organizing know-how to work. Father Bart knew that to be viable financially the school needed 207 students, about 30 more than were signed up for 1995-96. Father Bart received a $75,000 annual grant from the Franciscan Missionary Union to establish a scholarship fund for those who cannot afford full tuition. Then the local organizing committee launched a month-long campaign to locate new students. By the end of summer, 205 students were enrolled; 142 are receiving assistance.

The next campaign is an expensive the school air-conditioned. In New Orleans's tropical climate air­conditioning is not a luxury. The school will not be able to compete for enrollment without it.

The school is important because it helps define St. Mary of the Angels Parish, says choir director Richard Cheri. Attorney Lansen C. Barrow, a parishioner and school alumnus, agrees: "The school is part of the parish family, another part of the body. You don't cut off part of the body without weakening the entire body."

Tying All Things Together

You can see how faith and action have come together at St. Mary of the Angels by attending the 9:30 Mass on Sunday morning. In one of the city's finest gospel choirs, singing their hearts out are a number of people who are leaders of the local ACT committee. Serving at the altar is Cheri Spann, a young woman who is a leader in the parish youth group that is reaching out to kids in the housing projects. Lay parish leaders proudly wear the kente cloth on their shoulders, a bright-colored affirmation of both their African-American heritage and of their commitment to the parish.

Father Bart Pax, O.F.M., shares a moment with
seven-year-old Waukesha Jackson. A kente
cloth adorns the paschal candle stand.

The Mass is in the African-American tradition. It has been a centerpiece of parish renewal during the past five years. (There are two other Masses for those who prefer the liturgical style of most Euro-Americans.) Mass takes over one and a half hours, with four or five speakers making announcements at the end, but no one seems to mind. On this second Sunday after Dan Cavalier's murder, there is an emotional moment after the homily when Father Bart ceremoniously hands Dan's drumsticks to choirmaster Richard Cheri, announcing, "His ministry must go on, even this very morning." A choir member steps forward and takes a seat at the drums. Then the offertory song begins, with the skillful, soulful, strong beat of the new percussionist.

At Communion, when the choir sings, over and over, "I need you every hour, every day," with increasing conviction each time, one cannot doubt that these people will prevail in their campaign to win back their neighborhood. They are fueled by the faith that moves mountains.

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