- Photo by Tracie Morris Schaefer
- Pastor John Raphael helped start Yes We Care in response to New Orleans' out-of-control murder rate. He vows the group will respond to every murder in the city.
The blood has been scrubbed off the sidewalk in front the small shotgun house at 2800 Louisiana Ave. The yellow police tape has been discarded. The detectives have finished investigating the crime scene and there is nothing left to remind anyone a murder took place here less than 48 hours ago — except for the large man grasping a microphone powered by a car battery, addressing a growing group of people. They are gathered just 20 yards from where 26-year-old Ryan Batiste died from a shotgun blast in front of his grandmother's house two nights ago.
"If we don't say his life is valuable, then none of our lives are valuable," Pastor John Raphael tells the crowd of 40 or so assembled around him.
He doesn't need the microphone, as his rich baritone voice fills the air on this sultry evening in late April. Raphael's words are few, and his purpose is simple and direct. "Can't be no other reason than we care because of what every grandmother has to go through," he says.
It's the kind of compassion and understanding this former cop and man of God has given to this city for most of his adult life. Standing 6-feet-4-inches with a barrel chest, the 56-year-old Raphael looks like a man who can carry a large burden — and he does. As the leader of Yes We Care, a burgeoning movement that seeks to stop the killings that plague the African-American community in New Orleans, Raphael wants to prevent violence and murder. When they occur, however, he and his group are there. They call themselves the Faith Responders.
After his opening remarks, Raphael gives the microphone to other pastors and concerned citizens, who offer hope but also beseech the crowd to take a stand. Later, Raphael asks the crowd to form a prayer circle that spills out onto the approaching rush-hour traffic on Louisiana Avenue. This is his intention. The Central City pastor wants to disturb the status quo, the apathy that allows young men to die violently while communities sink into hopelessness.
"Not just this family was victimized, but this entire community was victimized," Raphael preaches, dabbing at his sweat-drenched forehead with a handkerchief. "Remember, Ryan Batiste was a baby in someone's arms."
When Raphael grew up in New Orleans' 13th Ward during the 1950s and '60s, his chief worry was racism, not violence. In his Uptown neighborhood near Magazine Street and Napoleon Avenue, his playmates were both white and black until, as Raphael puts it, his white friends' parents "taught them to not like." Even as a young child, he knew what his boundaries were: There was a black side and a white side at Callahan's Grocery Store, the park was for whites only and, sometimes, even walking down the street could get you in trouble. When he was 7 years old, he was stopped by two New Orleans police officers who claimed Raphael was going to spit on them.
The cops put handcuffs on the skinny wrists of the young boy, but the shackles were too large, so they told him to hold his hands up. What the two officers didn't realize was Raphael's father, John Sr., was also a cop — the city's first African-American police officer. The elder Raphael showed up and the two officers apologized to their colleague. Having a cop for a father also meant Raphael got into his share of scrapes over his dad's occupation, but that was as close as he came to experiencing any sort of violent behavior firsthand.
"I didn't know anyone when I was coming up that lost their life to violence," says Raphael, who this year alone has presided over the burial of nine murder victims.
Young Raphael spent his Sundays at the Second Baptist Church on Laurel Street, where his grandfather, Paul Walker Raphael, was the pastor. The youngster felt a connection to God, and with several generations of Baptist reverends in his family, churchgoing was woven into the social fabric.
"When my group came up, everybody went to church," Raphael says. "I didn't know anybody in the neighborhood that didn't go to somebody's church on Sundays."
Raphael never intended to follow in his father's footsteps. In 1972, he had a good job with South Central Bell. He had taken the NOPD entrance exam just to see how high he could score, but that led to other tests and, eventually, he took a polygraph for the police academy. He failed; the technician administering the test said Raphael was a member of a subversive organization and a heroin dealer. There were only 20 to 30 black officers on the force, and Raphael learned that falsifying polygraph results was how NOPD weeded out African Americans. His father arranged for a retest, and this time Raphael passed.
"Out of spite, I quit a job at the telephone company making twice as much money to take the job with the police department," Raphael says.
- Photo by Tracie Morris Schaefer
- Raphael leads the Faith Responders in prayer at the site where Ryan Batiste was murdered two nights earlier.
He served 15 years with the NOPD, eventually becoming a detective. He met Catherine, his future wife and fellow police officer, while working a Mardi Gras parade route detail. Raphael had never met Catherine, but he had heard of her. Her 18-year-old son had been shot and killed by police. Catherine's loss is something Raphael never forgets.
"I'm doing these funerals and I'm trying to say something to the mothers," Raphael recalls. "I'm thinking, 'What in the world could I possibly say to this mother?' That mother is now sentenced to a lifetime of grief. Every day. My wife, every day she has to think about [her son's death]. And that's my burden."
Catherine introduced Raphael to New Hope Baptist Church. Following his first visit to the Central City-based church, he knew he had found his spiritual home. Not long after he and Catherine were married, he began doing double duty, working as a police officer by day and attending seminary at night. Still, Raphael wasn't training to become a pastor. He was interested, but he didn't feel called to preach — until one night, when he was driving over the Claiborne Avenue overpass after Bible class, a voice — "almost as clear as we're talking," Raphael says — inspired him to leave the badge and get behind the pulpit.
New Hope's pastor at the time, the Reverend F. H. Dunn, gave Raphael one of his first preaching assignments: take the word to the streets. Dunn told him to stand on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Rampart Street and spread the gospel.
"I thought I knew about courage, but I did not," Raphael recalls.
Even though he left the police force to become pastor of New Hope's 1,400-member congregation in 1988, Raphael was still very concerned with the city and his neighborhood's rising crime statistics, especially the murder rate. Even in a poor city like New Orleans, Central City was particularly impoverished, with most residents living at or below the poverty line. In Raphael's view, however, the larger problem was a spiritual one; people had stopped going to church and listening to God.
By 1994, New Orleans had become the murder capital of the United States, with more than one killing per day occurring in the city. One child's story was emblematic of the tragic situation. In late April of that year, James Darby, a 9-year-old boy, wrote a letter to then-president Bill Clinton, appealing to him to help stop the killings. On Mother's Day 1994 — less than a month later — Darby was killed in a drive-by shooting as he walked home from a picnic.
When another boy, 4-year-old Dwight "Mikey" Stewart, died from a stray bullet in July, Raphael and other community leaders organized a public funeral procession that began in Central City and was attended by thousands. Around the same time, the pastor asked his congregation to make what he considered "a $30,000 act of faith." Without his or the church's name attached to it, Raphael paid for a billboard to be erected at Claiborne Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with the commandment: "Thou Shalt Not Kill." It was a divine public-service message.
"This why you shouldn't kill, because God says so. ...Hundreds and hundreds of kids every day passed that sign, going back and forth," Raphael says. "There were literally people who came to this church and said to this church, 'I would have killed someone. I made my mind up to do it, and every time I tried to go through with it, I saw that sign.'"
- Photo by Tracie Morris Schaefer
- The Yes We Care organization tries to appeal to adults and children. It began in early January and already has attracted several thousand concerned residents.
The entire Central City community, not just his congregation, recognized Raphael as someone who cared. Soon, whenever there was a shooting in the neighborhood, someone would knock on the church's door to let Pastor Raphael know. Instead of investigating crime scenes as a detective, Raphael showed up to offer spiritual help to the victim's family.
At a Yes We Care meeting at New Hope Baptist Church on April 24, members are discussing the group's response to murders: What resources are needed and who should be there? In order to keep the 40 people in attendance focused, the Rev. Aldon Cotton provides a scenario.
"Pastor Cotton's son just got killed," he says. "Within 24 hours, what needs to happen?"
A variety of answers are given: Drug counselors, victims' advocates, neighborhood representatives, trauma experts, ministers and social workers should be contacted and made available to the victim's family and residents in the affected neighborhood. Raphael nods in agreement as he listens to the suggestions. If all of these resources could be on hand, it would be very beneficial, but, he says, it's most important that the lines of communication be open.
"When we get into these communities, it's always hands-off and we need to open those doors," Raphael tells the group.
One woman takes the microphone and says that when Yes We Care shows up in neighborhoods outside of Central City, the community sees them as strangers. A man stands up and says it's vital to build local leadership in these areas. Raphael agrees with both of them. Yes We Care isn't intended to supplant any programs; it wants to support and promote effective resources. Too often, Raphael says, there is competition among different organizations over who is doing what. He wants to avoid that altogether.
- Photo by Tracie Morris Schaefer
- Raphael's approach is unabashedly religious because he feels part of the problem is faith-related.
"This isn't an organization," he explains. "This is a movement. ... Our kids are dying while we argue whose organization is the best."
As the meeting continues, it's clear that while the movement has a general direction, its path has not been fully mapped out. Nevertheless, for a group that only began in early 2009, it has already made some significant strides.
When Yes We Care held a rally on March 28 attended by approximately 3,000 people, mostly African Americans, it marked a different approach to the problem of violence in New Orleans. Unlike the Silence is Violence march on City Hall in January of 2007, which enabled citizens to voice their frustration with city government's inability to stop the rising tide of murders, the Yes We Care rally focused on urging the black community to get involved.
"The Yes We Care rally was more of 'Listen, we need to do something to make our society better,' says NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley, who attended both events and met with Raphael and other Yes We care organizers several times before the rally.
The movement began during impromptu meetings that took place when various reverends kept running into each other at funerals for murder victims. The Rev. Aldon Cotton says the frustrated religious leaders felt it was time for action. Single churches had formed anti-violence programs in the past, but none were widespread enough, and the ministers saw the need for a united message. Raphael would be the spokesman.
"Because of divine positioning, he has been able to bring the voices together of those of us who have the same burden and the same message," Cotton says.
Whether he's divinely inspired, a skilled diplomat or both, Raphael tries to provide a message of hope. He says when the Faith Responders go into an area that's experienced a murder, there will be people asking for help who might not otherwise look for assistance. At a recent Yes We Care faith response in the Calliope housing project, Raphael says there was a line of people who wanted help getting off drugs and assistance with other problems.
When people are asking for something, Raphael knows he has to deliver. That's why he wants to ensure any resource offered by Yes We Care is dependable and trustworthy. For a while, responders were recommending Job One, the city's workforce development program, hoping the organization would assist with job training.
"It got to the point when we'd be out in the communities and every time we'd mention Job One, it was, 'Oh, they don't help anybody,'" Raphael says.
One new resource Raphael feels he can count on comes from someone he has known since his days as a cop: Judge Calvin Johnson, former city justice and current executive director of the Metropolitan Human Services District. MHSD provides a variety of publicly funded mental health services, including assistance for drug abusers.
"I have given him the director of our addiction services," Johnson says. "He has her personal phone number. He can call her on the phone and she will fast-track anyone he identifies that is trying to get into treatment."
An effective resource can be as small as one person, and Yes We Care organizers are reaching out to individuals. This past Thursday, partially in reaction to the murder of 13-year-old Shaka Miller, Yes We Care held a meeting for men only at Walter L. Cohen High School. Raphael wants the men's ideas and suggestions for repairing the community, but he also wants their participation. "We want mentors and we're going to provide the men a list of mentor programs already in place, and we'll create new ones when there is a need," Raphael says.
While Yes We Care's path to healing neighborhoods and stanching the blood flow on the streets has an unabashedly religious tone, some of the nuts and bolts of it are rooted in everyday police work. Residents need to start communicating with the NOPD, Raphael says, so one murder doesn't spiral into one, two or more killings. Raphael knows the first inclination for many witnesses, especially parents, is to remain silent or lie, but he says they need to realize that by coming forward, they could be saving their children's lives. When a mother says her son was at home during the time of a murder when she knows he wasn't, she could be inadvertently setting him up for a retaliatory killing.
"But he's right back on the street and everybody in the community knows who did it — the friends of the person who was killed, the family of the person who was killed," Raphael says.
He understands it will take time for these kinds of changes, but he is encouraged, even when the source of that optimism comes from a dark place. In April, 19-year-olds Fitzgerald Phillips, a student at Southern University at New Orleans, and Calyisse Perkins, a reading tutor, were kidnapped from Perkins' Algiers apartment and later found slain in an abandoned house in Gert Town. What made this tragedy different, Raphael says, was the cooperation between the police, community and the media: Possible witnesses were brought in for questioning, tips were called in and every detail of the investigation was covered from the time of kidnapping to the discovery of the bodies. Eventually, one of the suspects in the double homicide was brought to police headquarters by his uncle and his father.
On the day the bodies of Perkins and Phillips were found, Raphael made his way to the crime scene. He saw a police chaplain when he arrived, but the chaplain had to leave on another call. Raphael stayed. "I ended up ministering to the families when they came," he says, and later, Phillips' mother asked Raphael to preside over her son's funeral. Yet again, Raphael will face the incomprehensible — What do you say to the mother of a murdered child? — and like so many times before, he will bring comfort. It is his burden.