Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) offers conference attendees’ opportunity to visit neighborhoods that are being transformed by the principles CCDA is founded upon. Friday morning, I stood in line at the pre-registration desk intent on purchasing a “Go and See” ticket.
“I’d like to buy a ticket to the St. Roch Workshop?”
“Sold out,” she said.
“Is there another ‘Go and See’ workshop available?”
The woman pointed to the display behind her. Every one of the workshop labels had “Sold Out” written across it in bright red. Mental note: If I ever attend another CCDA conference buy a “Go and See” ticket early.
I had found a suitable seat to film from in the Hyatt’s Celestin Ballroom, where the main sessions were held, and made a habit of arriving early lest someone take my seat. I walked into the morning plenary too late. Mary, a college professor of economics, was sitting in my coveted seat.
I sat next to her. “What brought you to the conference?”
“I love the ethnic diversity,” said Mary, “back home each has their own church: white, black, Asian, Hispanic. I like worshiping together.”
“How did you learn about CCDA?”
“I became involved when it was introduced at the college.” Her voice filled with irritation. “But I found a lot of resistance when I tried to include economics. The CCDA leaders at the college saw business as the evil oppressors.”
I decided against stirring the pot of frustration bubbling in Mary and changed the subject. “How do you define social justice?”
Mary paused to collect her thoughts. “There is a broad definition of what social justice is, so it depends on who you are talking to.” The plenary session began ending our conversation.
That afternoon I had a meeting with Charles Anderson. Several months ago, he read my book, Finding Faith in the City Care Forgot, and liked it, so he sent me a friend request on Facebook. On a Facebook update, I saw that his art had been accepted for CCDA’s Art Gallery. I sent Charles a message requesting to meet at the conference and talk about his art.
It is common to meet people who relocated to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a tragedy created by nature, but Charles was unique. A tragedy created by people prompted him to leave New Jersey and make New Orleans his home.
Charles had been an atheist all of his life when he saw a news report about a peace rally in New Orleans. A news clip of Rev. John Raphael, from the New Hope Baptist Church, gave Charles his first glimpse of God and became a turning point in his life. Rev. Raphael said, “We have come to declare that a city which could not be drowned in the waters of a storm will not be drowned in the blood of its citizens.”
Charles paused his story to reflect on that life defining moment. “That is something I had never seen before that was something other worldly. I thought, is that God. In that moment, I knew I was called to something greater. But it was years later before I became a Christian.
He attended church for the first time in his life at New Hope Baptist. Rev. Raphael preached the first sermon Charles had ever heard. At the conclusion of the service, Charles approached Rev. Raphael. “He was excited about me coming to town and encouraged,” said Charles. “He invited me back and often spoke about me in his sermons. That hooked me, this great man, charismatic, smart pastor of a large church really cared about my coming to New Orleans to help. The people were such great people, so nice to me. I felt wanted.”
Charles joined the Baptist church and founded United for Peace. His organization uses art, songs, stories, speeches and silence to create a sense of community. Every Tuesday they hold a moment of silence on Martin Luther King Boulevard to remember the lives snuffed out in violent acts. Afterwards, they offer support for the mothers of the victims.
Through his participation in community activism, Charles met Kevin Kieschnick, a practitioner of CCDA. Kevin invited Charles to attend CCDA’s Cincinnati Conference. While at the conference Charles met the woman, he would later marry. Their initial attraction to one another was on the subject of being vegetarians. The conversations about diet quickly evolved to discussions about CCDA and Christianity. Her Christian example led Charles to embrace Christianity.
As we walked to the Art Gallery, Charles told me about a youth meeting being held that evening that wasn’t listed in the program book. I recorded the time and place. Then filmed Charles talking about his art. He is the first to speak on the video at the bottom of the page.
Jolly Oatis of 3D Music Group was in the middle of his testimony when I arrived at the youth meeting. He spoke about the duplicity in his life. As a teenager, he attended Bible Studies but did not practice the principles taught. Basketball was his life. He’d rather be on the court shooting hoops than eating. Eventually, the seed planted at the Bible Studies bore fruit. He realized his prowess on the Basketball court, which filled him with pride and made him popular with the ladies, was a major hindrance to the growth of his spiritual walk. He quit Basketball to pursue God and plans to be a Pastor.
I gathered from comments made during the youth meeting that the small group of teenagers were in training to become CCDA leaders in their community. The future leaders introduced themselves by name, age, state and favorite food. One young man said his favorite food is dead animals. Incredulous looks were met with the explanation “any kind of meat”.
After the introductions Jolly clarified any misconceptions about the meaning of 3D. “It doesn’t mean 3 dimensional or 3 dudes. It is a reference to the 3 days Jesus lay in the grave. His brother Jeremy joined him, and they performed How can I Forget, written by the Oatis brothers. The song questions how we can forget all God has done for us.
A question and answer session followed. “Are they on ITunes?” “How did they start rapping together?” “Was it hard to quit sports?” The subject of giving up other activities became a discussion. One gave up acting and soccer. Another quit a band he had played in for five years. The session concluded with wise words from the moderator. “You don’t have to give up your extracurricular activities unless they have become a hindrance in your spiritual growth.”
When the pizza arrived, I departed for the evening plenary sessions. Pastor Robert Burnside spoke about his unconditional love for his community. Since he has been actively serving and praying for his community murders in his neighborhood have stopped, and the crime rate decreased dramatically. He was followed by the entertaining Father Greg Boyle, an American Jesuit priest and founder and Director of Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program in the United States. He counted it a privilege to work with gang members, who taught him how to text. He has learned the meaning of lol: laugh out loud, omg: O My God, and a recent new addition ohn: Oh Hell No, which he uses frequently! lol, omg that’s one I can use tooJ Father Greg took pleasure in the fact that rival gang members who use to shoot bullets at each other now shoot text messages. He spoke eloquently about serving others, and the sadness of burying 193 gang members.
I stayed late for Open Mic Night attended mostly by young people. An hour of dance, rap and poetry later, I returned to my room to download my camera. By 2 am, I had filled up the 32 gig flash drive I planned to give to the event coordinator of CCDA. I should have bought a flash drive with more gigs. Tomorrow, the last day of the conference, had a full schedule of plenary sessions and workshops that lasted until late in the evening.