One of our characters is a pastor by the name of John Rafael — a lineman-sized man who was a police officer in the very city where he found his true calling. He had to use every bit of his strength, and so did members of the New Hope Baptist Church as they took to the streets of their immediate neighborhood for 33 straight days after the morning when a gunfight erupted right after Sunday service.
On March 26, as members of his congregation were filing out, the pastor described to us a gunfight in which kids were running up and down the street shooting at one another. He bolted out and started walking down the street after these young men. He described to us his surprise when he realized that a dozen yards behind him, seemed to be all the men from his church. As they walked down that street, the doors in the neighborhood began to open, and people began to come out. That's when the nightly marches and prayer began.
The church has drawn a virtual line around a small sliver of New Orleans. Find MLK Jr., Claiborne, Simon Bolivar and Jackson avenues on a map and you'll see a tiny wedge-shaped section of Central City. They've drawn this line with a commandment: If you drive within those streets, you will see many signs that say "Thou Shalt Not Kill." The signs are stuck on lawns, stapled to telephone poles, posted to doors — and perhaps they're as powerful as Holy Water, because the pastor says that in the days since, there have been no new murders.
In our piece, the pastor described instances when someone walked in to his church and confessed to him that he intended to take someone else's life, but seeing those signs, one after another, made him hesitate long enough to reconsider.
It will take a lot more than street signs to change this community. The church is also working to try to help people find jobs; it's also starting summer programs for kids — because, as the old saying goes, "idle hands are the devil's workshop." City programs are still drying out from Katrina, but time is a luxury this community lacks.
One of the saddest things about the violence this church came face to face with is that the individuals who did this in broad daylight must have thought either that no one cared or would do anything about it. This brazen attitude — that no one will stand witness — is something the police department and district attorney's office will confirm.
Just this weekend there was a story in the New Orleans paper about the challenges facing a quintuple homicide case because the sole witness to the crime, the one person who could identify the suspect, has backed out and been impossible to find.
I watched one of the church's Wednesday evening prayer services that takes place in an old, abandoned parking lot in the middle of this community — neutral ground, if you will. Whoever wants to join is welcome. People join hands in a large circle, hear a few words and say a prayer. It is as simple as that, but it leaves you hopeful, even if only for a moment. Hope that a community can try to stay strong from within, because simply put, there is no other choice.