Joseph Massengerg was murdered in New Orleans on April 1, 2013, at 11pm in the Uptown neighborhood of West Carrollton (also called Leonidas) New Orleans. He was a young black male. He also was an Americorps volunteer, just in to the city from Illinois to work for Greenlight New Orleans, a non-profit that installs energy efficient light bulbs for low income residents. He was shot to death a few blocks from his house, talking to a friend on his cell phone.
I attended a candlelight vigil for Joseph, his family, and all victims of violence last night with members of the Living With Purpose Fellowship, a faith-based service program for post-college young adults, not unlike Americorps. We gathered with 150 others, candles in hand, and awaited the start of the march. The spring breeze flickered our candles and we affixed small cups atop the candles to prevent them from extinguishing. "We didnt know it would be this breezy," apologized the young man passing out candles and cups. He looked so meek and helpless. The police chief was there, in civvies, along with some press and at least one video camera, but our little huddle of supporters had a very intimate feel to it. In these settings you see the same people gathered: people of faith; social justice advocates; the young, eyes glinting with idealism in their fight against injustice and inequality; grizzled veterans of the same struggle, weary and wrinkled, shoulders bowed under the weight of it all.
We walked without words, shuffling across the loose, pot-holed pavement like weaponless soldiers, our battle cry the silence of foregone conclusion. From the lit and lush block close to Carrollton Avenue we plunged together into the darkness past the reach of gentrification, each block less occupied, less safe. Two more people were shot on our route just hours earlier. It felt hopeful, though, our nearly all-white band of sisters and brothers, walking together, lighting a path onto a broken street that became darker, streetlights sparser, as we continued into a neighborhood many New Orleanians have never seen. Neighbors came out on their stoops to watch in silence. I wondered if they knew why we were marching. Which of the murder victims we were honoring. Why a group of people had driven in from elsewhere to intrude into their neighborhood. I wondered if the organizers had invited them, too. I doubted it. When we paused at the site of the murder, two young black men, one hooded, walked up toward us from out of the darkness. I scanned them for signs of danger: bulging pockets, quick movements, and kept my eyes on their hands. They stopped at the police squad car escorting us, spoke to the driver, and walked past. Pang of guilt. We continued back to the site of our gathering, passing an unmarked low-slung brick building that appeared to be a bar, with a handful of people outside. You could smell the alcohol. "Silence the violence, increase the peace," came from somewhere near the corner. Again I wondered if we had invited anyone from the neighborhood. And if so, why they didn't come. Our white forlorn faces lit by candles trudged past black stares from porches. One woman softly clapped. We ended as we began, together in light, and after the organizer's brief remarks, we slowly scattered.
Americorps has pulled their two NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) teams out of New Orleans and back to their home base in Mississippi. Both ministers, Joseph's parents focused on his life and natural gift for service, refusing to criticize New Orleans when pressed by reporters. I wonder if this little march will do anything but give us marchers a feeling of satisfaction and moral accomplishment. In a sense it won't make a difference, and this will fade into the backdrop of a city beset by crime and oppression, inequality and poverty. But in another way we have honored this young man and his family the only way we know how, and lifted them up to God, and there is no more powerful response than that. A block away, before we entered our cars, the group of Living With Purpose Fellows that attended circled up with me; arms over shoulders we made a tight, intimate circle, our sullen faces just inches apart, imploring the others for answers. As Program Director, these Fellows had been my life until I was fired by the Bishop just weeks before, in January, 2013. It was the first time I'd seen them as a group and the sadness of our changed relationship hung in the spaces in between. I opened the prayer, and asked the Fellows to join. The Fellows each offered prayers as well, and my throat choked when one prayed with a cracked voice, "God thank you for Pete, and for helping him bring this circle together." After the last prayer I took a deep breath, opened myself up to God and began, "Heavenly Father, who is with us in darkness and in light, in living and in dying, we pray for the parents of Joseph Massenberg as they struggle with their loss. Be with them as they cope with this tragedy, and surround them with hope and peace. We pray for all those in our city affected by violence, and we pray that you make us instruments of your love to fight against all that is unjust in your world. In your name we always pray, Amen."