Reaching out in faith for peace
It’s been nearly a year since 100 church congregations, including more than a dozen Catholic church parishes, gathered at Dillard University to sign a covenant, crafted by the NOLA Interfaith Peace Initiative, to direct their spiritual and material resources toward bringing an end to community violence.
At the time, Joseph Givens, director of the Isaiah Institute that began the peace initiative, felt confident that an ambitious grant presented to the Casey Family Foundation would result in significant funding for churches to take concrete actions to mentor young people or provide recreational services.
While that grant proposal is still being evaluated, Givens told a prayer service for peace and racial harmony at St. David Church Sept. 9 that the momentum continues to build for a faith-based solution to violence, with hopes of wider funding.
On Nov. 11, the congregations that gathered at Dillard’s Lawless Chapel a year ago will reconvene to affirm their support of the covenant.
Then, the next day, Givens said, representatives of the NOLA Interfaith Peace Initiative will have a chance to explain to a major philanthropic group – the Southeast Council of Foundations – why faith institutions are critical to fostering peace in the community. The Southeast Council of Foundations will meet in New Orleans Nov. 12-14.
In addition to that, a major initiative of Kenneth Polite, the new U.S. Attorney General for the Eastern District of Louisiana, focuses on the power of faith communities to provide mentoring and other resources to at-risk youth between the ages of 14 and 16. Polite’s effort is called the Crescent City Keepers Mentoring Program.
“Kenneth Polite has identified 2,000-plus young people who have a high chance of being shot or being involved in a shooting,” Givens said. “He is asking congregations to wrap their arms around one of those kids as if they were family, providing each one of those troubled, young people with at least three mentors.
“They are also hoping that there are other social resources in that congregation that would help the young person’s mom and family. This places the church at the center of the project. We’ve all been saying from the very beginning that government can’t get into families. The only institutions that can get into families are faith-based congregations – the churches.”
Polite asks for churches’ help
In a letter to church leaders on Sept. 3, Polite said that a young person identified as “high-risk” is on the list because “he or she either has already been a victim of gun violence or is criminally connected to another victim of gun violence.”
Polite said the program represents a shift from one-on-one mentoring to an “institutional mentoring” concept, where a church will “adopt” the young person “and the entire congregation will provide resources and guidance.”
“Ultimately, we hope that, through this institutional mentoring concept, the participating youth will develop bonds with positive role models and will feel part of a caring and welcoming environment that will improve the young person’s prospects for a positive and successful future,” Polite wrote.
At the prayer service at St. David, Sister of the Holy Faith Teresa Rooney, director of the Office of Racial Harmony, and Kristina Gibson, director of Catholic Charities’ Isaiah 43 mentoring program, asked those present to find someone they didn’t know and to pray together. The crowd broke up into small groups, praying for various intentions.
Gibson also noted that the group will host a community prayer walk in the Lower 9th Ward Sept. 30, starting at 6 p.m. from St. David Church.
“The goal is to really get out from behind our church walls and get out in the community to encounter people, to let them know we are here and to listen and pray with them,” Gibson said.
St. David hosts a holy hour for peace at 11 a.m. on the first Friday of every month.
As an example of concrete help a church could provide, Givens mentioned a gymnasium that might be closed in the evenings because the church doesn’t have enough money to pay for a security guard, maintenance or insurance. Churches need to be a major part of the solution to keeping the peace, Givens said.
“We really appreciate and respect the efforts of all the organizations in the city of New Orleans, but we know that faith has a definite role in bringing peace,” Givens said. “There can be no peace without God. We need to pray for peace, promote peace and build the capacity of congregations to be able to meaningfully participate in the process."