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Reporting from Louisiana

Of the hundreds of pieces I have had published, this is perhaps the one for which I am most proud. It is the story of a group of evacuees from New Orleans who find shelter, if not salvation, from a church in Baton Rouhttps://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/3b8356f1-01d1-41a2-a5a0-e8c46e6b7536/downloads/Jeffs_Complete_Portfolio.24183945.pdf?ver=1562593081329ge that takes them in.

Bodies and souls/ Baton Rouge minister opens church doors for more than 30 New Orleans evacuees


J.D. VENTURA

2 October 2005

The Baton Rouge Advocate 1-H

English

Copyright (c) 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.


They drove up to the church in a caravan of stolen cars.


The evacuees from New Orleans washed up like driftwood, after Katrina erased everything, like an Etch-A-Sketch shaken until the picture fades and disappears. At the end of 69th Street in Scotlandville, with gas and morale low, they emerged from their vehicles, carrying children and a few bags.


Most of them were survivors long before millions of gallons of dirty water set them adrift in a commandeered boat. They had made the tough streets of Uptown New Orleans theirs. They had that.


Now they had nothing.


Except for Bishop Frank Washington's kindness.


The Baton Rouge preacher wasn't one to stop and consider what should or shouldn't be done. Considerations of right and wrong were as instinctual as knowing good from evil. He would take them in. He flung the doors of the Banks Community Outreach Ministry open and told his Baptist congregation of 75 it's what had to be done.


In a sense, Washington had learned the streets, too. He came here from New Orleans in the '70s with a reference letter that said he was good at driving a bus. A day after he arrived, "not knowing his way to the corner," he was bringing the city's poor where they needed to go. The streets of Baton Rouge became his. He had that.


Before he was a man of God, he was a man of the world. "I did ordinary sinful things," he said, slouching slightly in his chair, a man of 70 who spends all Sunday in a shirt and tie. But all that changed after he killed a rabbit and had a heart attack.


At 52, after collapsing in the woods, his heart beating as hard as the hare his dogs had just chased down, the hunter became the hunted. Fate of some sort had taken aim, and he went under the knife. A triple bypass. Through it there was a feeling of overwhelming serenity and coolness. God didn't speak to him. But the man changed.


"Everything I used to do, I then detested seeing other people do," he recalled. "I didn't want cigarettes anymore, and the taste of alcohol just got away from me."


A neighborhood was getting away from him, too. It was in need of reclamation. Many who are now gathered in the little church Washington started nearly two decades ago probably don't know it became a foothold of righteousness during the late '80s and throughout the '90s, when Washington tried to rid the community of "crack houses"


"There is a house of Satan over there," he remembered saying. "So I am going to make this a house of God."


And so a single-story shotgun house was converted into a church. The drug dens didn't convert as easily, but a few disappeared. Back then victory was measured in subtle signs that a community remained.


It's a community that is still there today. Made up of people like Bythella Wesley, who lives across the street from the church. On the morning Rita's raindrops sped sideways like bullets, Wesley, toting bags of groceries, got up and drove to a relative's house, where there was still electricity.


As the storm made the 30 or so evacuees hunker down again, in walked a soaking-wet Wesley with a big pot of grits, trays of smoked sausages and biscuits, jelly and plenty of orange juice.

   

"I promised those people I was gonna make breakfast," said Wesley, who stood talking to a couple of evacuees on the church steps recently. "It was a relief to make them a hot meal after the storm...after a storm like that."


Wesley didn't know any of them. She had never met Sherri Martin before, or the 23-year-old woman's two children, Rickshineda, 7, and Shawn, 1. The kind woman across the street may not have heard that the ceiling of Martin's New Orleans apartment came crashing in around her children's heads, "like an earthquake."


After the storm, Martin and others from the neighborhood cleaned up their yards and cooked out. It was a beautiful day, fresh and cool, until the water came, like a snake winding through a field of flowers. The paradise of home was quickly lost.


Neighbors from Daneel, Dryers and Cadillac streets walked through the water and waited for buses they had heard would rescue them at the corner of Napoleon and St. Charles. But as night fell and the waters rose, it was clear they were alone.


Dean Lundy, Martin's best friend, left his elderly mother behind. She had checked into a hotel that eventually forced its occupants to the Superdome. The 67-year-old woman called her 29-year-old son, first from there, then from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where she spent the night sleeping outside under a stairwell. "I can't walk any further," she pleaded with her son. "I want to lie down here and die." "Don't you do it, mama," he said to her.

"Don't you do it."


After hot wiring some SUVs and a van, the group fled their sinking city. Lundy had his two adopted sons with him. Martin brought her mother, Sherylynn. And it was Sherylynn - whose mother had dated Frank Washington in the '50s - who delivered them to the Baton Rouge bishop.


Although they thanked her profusely for the breakfast, Wesley probably didn't know much about Melford Dilbert and Betty Suazo, either.


Eighteen years ago the now-retired merchant marine was asking friends, "Who's that pretty 'lil thing?" It's a story that still makes Suazo blush. The couple made a home of the modest blue house on Daneel Street, where they raised their daughter, Melanie.


Yes, there were drugs in the neighborhood, and violence. But there were decent folks, too, who looked out for their neighbors. Like anywhere, the good came with some bad.

"At one time there was 30 guys selling dope on our block, but I didn't do nothing, or say nothing," said Dilbert. "You had to go easy with them, or they'd shoot you right there. Bam, bam, bam."


A home-cooked breakfast was a welcome break in a new existence anchored in inane routines. At night people sleep in the pews, with most inside the church by the 11 p.m. curfew set by Washington. By day there is "The Price Is Right" on the small television, its rabbit ears pulling in a snowy signal.


There is also the occasional trip to various relief agencies in search of clothing and monetary benefits. Some have managed to get Red Cross vouchers. Most everyone is still awaiting help of any sort from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Almost nobody has a line on housing.


A few of the teenagers and younger kids are back in school. But a handful of older guys spend impatient days waiting for word about what's next.


Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, Washington's ministry is near almost nothing. There are only two points of interest within walking distance: a house across the street that's a hang-out for some of the neighborhood's 20-somethings, and P&S Grocery.


Last week, after living in the church for 18 days, Bucky Brown and Gregory "Slim" Gould went into the market, a trailer upon which is painted the declaration, "We 'except' LA. Purchase Cards." Inside customers can buy chips called Rap Snacks or a salt meat sandwich for $2.89. A sign near the register announces that profanity will not be tolerated. The owner doesn't tolerate a lack of consumer confidence, either.


"Hold up, hold up!" she yelled, as the evacuees and several neighborhood teenagers walked into the store at the same time. She then asked every patron what they intended on buying. Those with no purchase plans were sent packing.

  

Brown and Gould wound up outside, hanging out under the house's carport. Rap music thumped from within. Ricky Wall and three other men were rolling dice and sucking on crabs they had bought for $15 a bag down on Scenic Highway. "Black folks," Wall said with a shoulder shrug when asked how his group met the evacuees.


The guys from the shelter, standing in front of a beat-up '70s- era Ford 100 truck, its front tires gone, shared a joint and drank 40-ounce beers wrapped in plastic grocery bags. Another evacuee joined them, wearing a T-shirt which read, "I got out of bed and dressed. What more do you want?"


As soon as he rounded the corner, Josh Reed started talking. The scrawny 18-year-old gestured with one hand, while the other kept his baggy pants from simply slipping past his exposed boxer shorts. He said he was from the Third Ward in New Orleans. From the projects, he insisted. It sounded like a brag.


The crew from the Crescent City ignored him with catlike indifference.

But Reed's boyish bravado around the other guys melted away when, later, he admitted he cried himself to sleep some nights in the shelter. He worried about his mother, her whereabouts still unknown. He wondered aloud what the future held for him. He couldn't imagine a life in Baton Rouge.


"They are children just trying to find their way through life," Washington would explain later. "They must be taught righteousness."


Washington admitted he is a teacher with only a few students. None of the evacuees have attended his services, now being held at another church. He has warned some of the young people staying at the shelter to avoid the house across the street. "We are all God's creatures," he said. "But there are a lot of devils out here."


The preacher bristles at the conclusions people make about the New Orleans evacuees. Just because they are from rough streets doesn't make them "wild savages."


Every man is a sinner, but every man can be born again. That's what he would tell them if they were sitting in his pews on Sunday morning, rather than sleeping in them every night.

And he would warn them of false prophets, of those who "preach prosperity" rather than "life." Like some rappers who flaunt their luxurious possessions, filling young souls with an insatiable wanting.


On a car ride to another nearby convenience store, some of the guys from the shelter listened to Soulja Slim, a New Orleans artist who was shot to death at the age of 25. They blasted "I'll Pay For It" from the car stereo, the factory speakers unable to handle the bass, distorting lyrics about buying sex:


I'll pay for it/I'll pay for it/I'll pay for it/I'll pay for it If I want it/If I want it/If I want it/If I want it.


As night fell, the evacuees on 69th Street sat on the church steps, much like they did on the porches in their now-destroyed neighborhood. The guys across the street leaned into the windows of cars circling the block, rims shining, stereos thumping.


Reed came by again. Someone pointed out that he wasn't staying in the shelter...that he wasn't even from New Orleans. Some of the teenage girls staying in the church taunted him. One yelled, "You from Baton Rouge! Look how you talk!"


With an embarrassed grin on his face, he denied it, waving his one free hand dismissively before walking down the street.


"He ain't from New Orleans," said Bucky Brown. "He just wants to be."