Photos by: William Widmer
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Barely five years after tasting his first bite of gumbo, 32-year-old J.B. Watkins would be using the dish as a metaphor to describe St. Roch, the section of New Orleans’ 8th Ward where he planted St. Roch Community Church (SRCC).
“It’s a healthy mix of everything,” he explains. “It’s very urban, very artsy. It’s a conglomerate of a lot of different cultures all gathered in one place.”
Historically a German settlement, St. Roch — like most of New Orleans — bursts with the remnants of French influence in its architecture, food, music, and art. The congregation of St. Roch is no less diverse. African Americans. Caucasians. Asians. Visitors from Africa and the Latino community. Professors. Mechanics. Stay-at-home moms.
Pitted against this vibrant culture, uglier things — poverty, crime, and physical devastation — scar the neighborhood. Youth who’d rather sell drugs than go to school. Mothers who lose sons in senseless shootings. Homes destroyed by merciless storms.
“I had no intention of moving here to New Orleans,” Watkins admits. Then a 27-year-old Reformed Theological Seminary grad, Watkins was getting his pastoral feet wet at New Beginnings Community Church in Memphis when he was introduced to Desire Street Ministries, an urban ministry that began in New Orleans. Following Hurricane Katrina, Desire Street staffers began assessing how they could help rebuild the community. As they canvassed the 8th and 9th wards, they quickly discovered that many of the churches were dwindling in numbers, with many congregants displaced after the storm. So a few families began meeting for Bible studies and to pray about planting a church in the 8th Ward.
“As we looked to the gospels and God’s redemptive history, we realized He’s always used His church,” said Ben McLeish, currently the executive pastor and director of St. Roch’s Community Development Corporation (CDC).
About six months later, Watkins received an invitation from Desire Street for a holiday to “The Big Easy.”
“They fed me po’ boys, gumbo, took me to a jazz show,” he recalled. Still, he wasn’t convinced that God was calling him to relocate his growing family (his wife, Stephanie, was pregnant with their first child) from the good thing they had going in Tennessee. Two months later, Watkins visited again. This time, he says, “We heard people’s hearts” and realized the need for a church plant in this struggling part of the city. In August 2007, J.B. and Stephanie packed up and moved to New Orleans to plant St. Roch Community Church.
“Without the church, there is a high possibility that I would be dead or in jail,” 21-year-old Troy Glover admits.
Glover’s father was killed when he was just one. His mother is addicted to drugs. And Glover had spent too much time on drug corners, and in courtrooms. It was all he could do to keep his head above water, literally.
The year Watkins moved to New Orleans to start St. Roch, Glover and his family were living in Texas, having evacuated the 9th Ward during Katrina two years earlier. Returning to the neighborhood in 2008, the Glovers found their home had been flooded and was now uninhabitable.
Not long after moving back, Glover met the Colliers, one of the founding families of SRCC, while playing a game of pickup basketball. Soon, he found himself sitting at their dining room table and attending Bible study with them. As Glover continued to hang around St. Roch, his new friends helped him sort out his life, taking him to court hearings, helping him pay rent, and arranging tutoring to help him graduate from high school. To help Glover’s family get back on their feet, McLeish let them live in a rental unit he owned.
Since then, Glover has joined the church and is now preparing to be a leader in a safe house the church is refurbishing for at-risk youth. An abandoned building purchased by the church, the safe house is an outgrowth of St. Roch’s CDC, a separate 501(c)3 the church established to help the neighborhood in its recovery process. Since its inception, the CDC has renovated 11 housing units and helped 30 people with various improvements to their homes. It also renovated an abandoned grocery store that St. Roch had purchased to serve as its church building.
Glover, now halfway through a degree in organizational communications at Southeastern Louisiana University, credits not only the new trajectory of his life to St. Roch, but also his new worldview: “I used to be segregated. I stayed on my side of town, you stayed on your side of town . . . [now] I’m accepting of other races, other cultures.”
Glover came to St. Roch through a game of basketball.
Anne Nelson came because of art.
In early 2010, Nelson, a recent art grad in Minneapolis, was stretching herself thin working two jobs to pay for an art studio, supplies, and life expenses. One day, she received a text message from a friend telling her that a local church had a paid artist residency program. The church was St. Roch.
Just blocks from New Orleans’ major art scene, St. Roch is walking distance from six art galleries. Early on, the church decided that engaging with the arts community would be a crucial part of its ministry. Under the leadership of Aaron Collier, founding member and Tulane University art professor, St. Roch established an artist residency program that would provide a young artist with an art studio, apartment, stipend, and opportunity to redemptively engage the local art scene.
After learning about the residency, Nelson applied and was accepted in March 2010. By September, she was setting up shop in New Orleans. Although Nelson hadn’t gone to church in a while, St. Roch helped bring her faith back to life.
“Coming down to a community that was so intentional about being embedded in a neighborhood, that was an interesting lifestyle to see,” she said. “There’s just this sense of being in this burgeoning art scene, and [I] want to participate in it in an honest way and show who the Lord is.”
Nelson lived and worked for a whole year in the St. Roch community as a core part of the church, eventually hosting an art show of her oil paintings at one of the local galleries. She wasn’t ready to leave at the end of the year, so she decided to go to grad school at Tulane, where she now has the opportunity to illustrate a message of hope against a backdrop of spiritual bleakness.
For Constance Nelson (unrelated to Anne), it wasn’t until her first son died that she began attending St. Roch regularly. She had visited a few times after receiving a flier about the church, but things changed on Nov. 8, 2008, when her 15-year-old son was killed. To deal with the grief, she began going to St. Roch every Sunday.
“They would speak positively to me . . . they always told me to keep my head up and about the Word of God.”
Tragically, a second son died in similar circumstances just this past November. As the grief returned afresh, Constance found herself surrounded by her new church family, which brought meals, cried with her, and raised money to pay for the funeral. “Wonderful people, wonderful people,” Constance murmurs.
Others have found their way to St. Roch through Zumba classes, Christmas outreaches, an after-school program, and block parties.
Five years in, Watkins surveys the conglomerate of lives and stories that make up the 75-member community of St. Roch: a historic culture being made new, once-segregated streets losing their boundary lines, and once-broken lives being redeemed.
“I feel like the people have expressed a desire, a hunger for the gospel,” Watkins says. “It’s amazing for me, and I feel like I’ve been more blessed,” after seeing congregants like
Constance show up for church week after week. “I imagine if I were in that particular situation, what in the world would I do? There’s such authentic faith. These are people who are actually, literally, trusting God to provide and keep them from danger.”