By Marilyn Stewart, Regional Reporter
NEW ORLEANS – Gun violence in New Orleans’ quiet Gentilly neighborhood used to be rare, but after four shootings within a twelve-month period rocked Gentilly Baptist Church, pastor Ken Taylor decided something had to change. That “something” was him, and Taylor began visiting crime scenes to care for hurting people, even scenes marked by the faint imprint of Voodoo.
Taylor’s commitment came in the wake of a church family grieving the loss of two teenage sons whose deaths occurred mere months apart and after a double-murder nearby took place while one victim’s brother played basketball in the church gym.
Terrifying most of all was the Sunday morning eighteen months ago when a man was shot in front of the church as he left the worship service to go home, Taylor said.
“The shootings certainly brought home to us what we knew the city has been facing for a long time,” Taylor said. “It personalized it for us more.”
As crime reports came in, Taylor, a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary professor of missions, found himself most often in the nearby 7th Ward, where locals often delineate between the “lake side” of St. Claiborne Ave., a main artery bisecting the region, and the more troubled “river side,” where violence is more prominent. New Orleans is bounded by the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
Good has come from Taylor’s visiting crime scenes as one man began attending church and is now considering a call to ministry. And in the pulpit, Taylor said he feels a greater sense of urgency and knows he’s speaking to many “who live on the cusp of life or death.”
Though quiet has mostly returned to Gentilly, the need remains. Just prior to press time, Taylor was called to a home he knew well to see yet again the all-too-familiar sight of the grandmother mopping up blood on the porch.
In that shooting, one woman told Taylor she thought she knew the perpetrator but was too afraid to tell, Taylor said. The woman believed the shooter to be the man who had murdered her own son.
“People are scared,” Taylor said.
Burdened for the city and for a way to help students connect to its need, Taylor decided to take his Urban Missions class out to prayer walk in the troubled 7th Ward after a quadruple shooting left one man dead and three injured, including a year old girl.
When Taylor and his class of seven students pulled up, they saw a makeshift memorial of teddy bears and flowers marking the house where the shootings had taken place three days earlier.
While the students walked the neighborhood in prayer, Taylor stayed at the scene and talked to family members.
Sarah Clawson, NOBTS student, talked to several neighbors, including a group of men outside a neighborhood convenience store who were disturbed by the murder and “the baby who was shot.”
The neighbors want real change, Clawson said. “With the exception of only one person, all asked for prayer for their community,” Clawson said.
At the scene, the victim’s sister, the last surviving member of her immediate family, grieved publicly, but eventually allowed Taylor to pray with her, Taylor said.
While there, Taylor said he was caught up in an emotionally-charged altercation involving the victim’s aunt and a neighbor that ended as police led the man away in handcuffs. The police had arrived to monitor a Second Line – typically a march where participants dance as they follow a Brass Band – that was pre-arranged in the victim’s honor.
Instead, the band played and participants danced in front of the crime scene as the victim’s aunt poured pieces of candy over the memorial and another woman poured beer, a ritual that hints of Voodoo and paying homage to deceased loved ones, Taylor said.
Taylor pointed to the pervasive influence in the community of the little-publicized Spiritualist Church of New Orleans, a group that researcher and author Claude F. Jacobs has described as a syncretistic mix of Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, Voodoo and Spiritualism.
“We were speechless,” Taylor said. “I could not have arranged a more fitting setting for urban missions. It was quintessential New Orleans.”
Sarah Clawson said the non-traditional Second Line began with people having a good time, then switched to loud waling and weeping.
“There was a feeling of hopelessness,” Clawson said. “This was all they had left of him.”
Bryan Coble, NOBTS student, said the experience confirmed to him his call to urban missions and has emboldened him to share the Gospel.
“Dr. Taylor genuinely cares for his students,” Coble said. “He wants us to see the real New Orleans and experience what it will take to heal the brokenness of the city.”
Taylor said that finding ways to address violence is a continuing process but believes the church needs to be at the heart of the solution.
“While there is a lot of bleakness and fear, I see God working in individual lives,” Taylor said. “It is through Jesus Christ that lives are changed, and it’s only through changed lives that we can deal with this.”