Cover Story

New faces of New Orleans

"New faces of New Orleans" Continued...

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

He showed me around the brightly painted yellow and green building that serves as sanctuary and also the site for an after-school and summer camp program: "People were looking for hope. They had learned not to put their faith in federal agencies. . . . They're realizing that they should hope in the gospel. Some are also starting to think not so much 'I need help' but 'I can help.'"

The summer camp 8- and 9-year-olds were yelling out times table answers; "Three times four is 12. . . . Three times six is 18." Watkins explained that the building, a corner grocery store, had 4-5 feet of water in it after Katrina hit: The church was able to purchase it at a low price, clean and repair it with largely volunteer labor, and hold its first morning service last November. The church now has a community garden, a potluck dinner every Sunday, and a financial advisory service that filled out tax forms for close to 200 people earlier this year and helped them open bank accounts.

The big park right across the street from St. Roch's was a FEMA trailer park and home to hundreds of people a little over a year ago. Now the park is clear, and it remains both blessing and curse. The church uses it for a monthly block party and looks for opportunities to celebrate: "When a child gets a good grade, we have a party." One celebration came at the end of summer camp on July 24, with kids able to put on their bathing suits and cool off. But the park also is the home for drug deals and occasional shootings. Watkins says, "People are forced to pray here: 'Lord, keep me safe.' I'm forced to internalize my message."

We drove around the flooded-out 8th and 9th wards, past numerous boarded-up houses-but then comes a neat house with cerulean blue paint, mint green trim, and brown shutters. We passed lots of overgrown lots, but then a house with lime green paint, yellow trim, and two pink crepe myrtles in front. "A lot of darkness here," Watkins sighed, "but also a great deal of good. Lots of spiritualism and voodoo, but also family-oriented people who look after each other."

One St. Roch churchgoer, Willie Trotter, is becoming officially family-oriented. He has lived with a lady for 13 years, and together they have an 8-year-old daughter: Now they plan to marry in October. "I love her, don't want to commit sin," Trotter explained. "J.B. [Watkins] talked to me, talked to her, now we see what's right. Everyone in the congregation supports this: We're all family."

Another of Watkins' disciples, Troy Glover, 19, taught in St. Roch's summer camp during June and July. He took a timeout from teaching the 8- and 9-year-olds to explain that when he was a year old his dad was killed; his mom has been hurt by drugs. Trapped in a house when Katrina hit, he floated out on a door and survived days at the Superdome-"crowded, bathrooms a mess, but not that bad."

Bused to Texas, he went to five different schools in Houston before heading home to New Orleans, where he started "doing things in the street that weren't right." But a change began through contact with St. Roch members: "People here in the church, they didn't force me. We'd play ball and talk about Jesus. We'd have parties in the park and talk about Jesus. Church became my outside family. Every court date, anytime, someone from the church helped me. Bonded me out of jail, came to my house, prayed for us."

Glover graduated from high school in June and will head to college next month. But he still hopes to influence his New Orleans friends through the same gradual method that worked with him: "I say to them, 'Come to church, come to Bible study,' not forcing them, just asking them, 'How long you gonna keep doing what you're doing?'"

Watkins was an inner-city pastor in Memphis before taking on St. Roch, so he had intimate knowledge of urban problems-but another pastor who moved to New Orleans after Katrina, Ray Cannata, 40, came straight from 14 years at a suburban New Jersey church that he served as intern, associate pastor, and then senior pastor for the last seven years.

He was "tired of church potlucks, terrible food, everyone wanting to get away to drive 45 minutes to get home and work on the lawn." He agreed to make the move during the months following Katrina, which he says made the prospect of transition "more attractive, not less," because both the challenge and the need seemed greater: "There were no other evangelical churches uptown, and I figured that if I didn't come nobody else would."

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