- Photo by Alex Woodward
- A portrait of murdered toddler Jeremy Galmon at Rev. John Raphael Jr.'s recent vigil in the neutral ground of a Central City intersection.
Raphael, the pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, spent the last week of 2010 in the heart of Central City at the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He fasted — drinking only water, Gatorade and coffee — and prayed for an end to violence. He ended his vigil Friday, New Year's Eve — though if he felt he needed to continue, he would've stayed for as long as it would have taken. It's a ritual he's performed before — previously in the cold, final days of 2008, when the city's homicide count totaled 178. In 2010, there were 175 reported murders.
And still Raphael maintains hope.
At Raphael's intersection, there are crates of Duraflame logs and Gatorade, Thermos bottles and a small fire pit to keep the pastor and his congregation warm.
"We've been praying every hour, some days every half hour. ... People come out, through rain, cold, missing the Saints game," Raphael says with a laugh. "There's some things that are so important right now, and we in the church can't sit in our ivory tower. The one thing the church can do is pray, and the church can love ... folks who don't deserve to be loved. That's needed."
Cars honk and drivers wave as they pass Raphael. Some stop, or roll down their windows at the stoplight, to say, "This is a good thing you're doing," "We love you," or "I wish they would listen."
Surrounding a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial are signs with photographs of 2-year-old Jeremy Galmon, who died when he was caught in a crossfire in September. Other signs remind drivers and passers by of the other murders that distressed the city in 2010, and others simply read "TRUCE."
"I just threw that word out there," Raphael says. "At some point there's going to have to be a truce, where 'I'm not going to get the revenge I want myself, but I do have the option of saying I saw this person take that person's life.' It's something the community has to enforce."
- Alex Woodward
- Q93 DJs Ro Watts, DJ Slab and Wild Wayne.
"Pastor called Monday (Dec. 27) afternoon, said why he was out here, the reason he was out here, and we immediately jumped behind him," DJ Slab says. The station and its DJs spread the word via Twitter, Facebook and the airwaves, letting audiences know where Raphael would be and that he welcomed company. More than 150 people stopped by the intersection on Wednesday, Dec. 29.
"We've been on the radio a long time," Wayne says. "We're very influential in the community. If we can be the beacon, and get the information out there that the pastor is out here, and reiterate to stop the violence, using the medium for what it's worth, we figured it could be impactful. Going into this New Year, (we hope) to see this new New Orleans people keep talking about and see a decrease in violence at the same time."
Wayne says spreading an anti-violence message has "got to be done, and it's got to be repetitive."
"The radio is a great tool," Watts says. "We can do a lot of positive (things), and everybody does have a voice. (It has to) start somewhere. People call in like, 'Where's the event?' It's now — it's a pledge to stop the violence. Make a difference right now. You can always intervene."
Raphael also called the station for a request: Cut any songs with violent content.
"You can't just lump all the blame on the radio," Wayne says. "There may be one or two or a few songs that maybe have questionable content, but at the end of the day, it's still incumbent on individuals, on parents, on pastors, to build a foundation — especially with these young and impressionable people — that it is a form of entertainment."
Besides helping Raphael with his message, Wayne also founded his Benjamin Foundation, and Watts founded the Don't Even Trip Dream Foundation. The organizations use entertainment to help youth programs and camps and to perform community service.
"There's no one solution (to stop the violence). It's a mindset that needs to be reconditioned," Watts says. "As a media outlet, we can do that. We just need to take a positive stand. We tell people to party all the time, now we just need them to stop the violence."
"And party on the side," Slab adds. "Party with a stop-the-violence mindset. Someone steps on your tennis shoes, say 'I'm sorry, brother,' and step aside. We have to rethink ourselves. We call ourselves New Orleanians. We got to look out for New Orleanians."
Lyle Mouton remembers when he could play football, or have water fights in his neighborhood on Felicity Street, a few blocks from the intersection where he's praying alongside Raphael. Now the 24-year-old minister says kids can't play outside at all.
"You can't play in the streets without a drive-by taking place," he says, remembering a recent shooting at Josephine and Lasalle streets in broad daylight that struck two people in their arms and another two in their heads. "You don't see girls double dutching. ... We see young people toting guns, selling drugs, walking around with pants hanging down, cursing their mamas out. Seem like they don't have that fun any more. There's no more fun. They have fun, but it's fun doing the wrong thing — having fun killing each other. It's fun to them. They glorify it — the one who has the most kills, sells the most drugs."
Mouton joined the church as a minister in 2008 after he and a friend were shot at following a trip to Popeyes. "I found out where they stayed at, found out who they was," he says. "I could've retaliated. It's that easy." But Mouton says didn't retaliate. Instead, he prayed and asked "Why me?"
"Every day people are dying in that same incident, but (God) kept me. Why? And I asked Him, 'Just give me compassion.' I pray for compassion and love constantly. It's hard. ... I still do things I shouldn't do, but as far as violence, taking somebody's life, I (chose) an alternate route, and it pays off."
Mouton credits Raphael and the church for helping him find the path to God and hopes to help his peers find a similar path.
Raphael's father, John Raphael Sr., was the city's first African-American police officer, and the younger Raphael later joined the force, serving for 15 years. Before Raphael joined New Hope as its pastor in 1988, then-Rev. F.H. Dunn asked Raphael to spread the gospel at the corner of Rampart Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Raphael would later pay for a billboard at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Claiborne Avenue, that simply read, "Thou Shalt Not Kill."
In 2008, Raphael led the Yes We Care campaign, urging city officials to help stop violence within the African-American community. The campaign culminated in a March 28, 2009 rally at City Hall with 3,000 attendees. In 2011, Raphael wants to unite the community's peacekeeping efforts and speak to African Americans about stopping the violence from within and urge witnesses and anyone with knowledge of a crime to come forward.
Raphael also pushes for community involvement in getting young people motivated to see a better life beyond the streets.
"There are so many young men on these streets, who say, 'OK, I'm out here selling, putting my life in danger, I'd rather be working. But I have a rap. I can't get a job.' We have to deal with those issues," he says. "There are some people, even if they could get a job, they still wouldn't. We have to encourage them, we have to push them, and there is a lot of grassroots and groundwork that has to be done. I think churches can play a tremendous role. Some people have to get up every morning and look for a way to change their lives. Others will sit and wait — one day something's going to happen. But they'll get up if they have someone giving them a hand, saying, 'Listen, what's going on in your life and what can I do to help?' You have to help them, give them some alternative.
"There are those things as a city and as a community we can't hide anymore. We can't shove them under the rug and pretend it's not there. We have to respond to it."