Last week, I went with some other neighbors to a memorial service for Jospeh Massenburg, an 18 year old Americorps volunteer from Chicago who was killed in a drive by shooting five blocks from our house. The neighborhood adjacent to us, where he was shot, was originally a safe, largely black, neighborhood for working people with small, well-kept houses built mostly by World War II vets. It was called Pension Town for this reason. The name evolved to Pigeon Town. Then crack came in during the 70s and badly damaged the neighborhood. Next, Katrina did a lot of damage. It is recovering and there is a lot of construction going on now with both rehabs and new homes. I see often see new work going on as I drive through it. Some of the new construction is being done by volunteers. It is a place in transition.
Jospeh Massenburg was black and grew up in a rough neighborhood in Chicago, the son of two evangelical pastors. He was staying in the neighborhood with some other volunteers. They were working as part of the Green Light project introducing residents to low cost light bulbs and other energy saving advice. It was at night and he got a call on his cell phone. He went out to take the call and was walking around the street talking when the drive by shooting occurred. The current thinking is that the shooters were looking for someone else and mistakenly took Joseph to be that person.
The shooter and his fellow riders have not been caught when I wrote this. There is a $5000 reward that local organizations are hoping to increase. This twice the usual amount. The driver has been possibly identified. There is a Crimestopper program that takes information confidentially. This is how the second line shooter was caught. Someone from the program was at the service with flyers asking for help.
The service was held at the Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church located in the neighborhood. They had a gospel choir with an organ and a drummer. There was a lot of singing. The church was filled with a mix of people: neighbors, other young volunteers, the press, and local politicians. A senior Americorps person came from Washington and was one of the speakers. Several other people spoke, including agency heads and City Council members. The local preacher gave a strong sermon. He was the person who first heard the shots and called the police. The shooting occurred across from the preacher’s house.
Sharon and Andre Massenburg, the parents of the young man were there. The father, a preacher himself, spoke last and gave a very powerful sermon. It was the most moving experience of the evening. He talked about how things had changed since he was a kid. He is 50. He said that when he was growing up in Chicago, he was more afraid of his Mama than the gangs at his school. So he would rather fight the gangs than join them and have to explain that to his Mama.
Andre Massenberg had several themes in his remarks. The first was not to quit. Andre said he was asked by reporters if he still felt the same way about serving rough areas now that he lost his son. He said that of course he still believes in service. He will continue to do it himself and encourage others. He also said to be sure to put blame only where it belongs; to get angry only at the right people. He is not angry at the city of New Orleans or the community or Americorp, only the shooters. He said that the city and the neighborhood have shown him much love and support. The mayor of New Orleans met with he and his wife earlier that day.
I agreed with the father’s words and they brought back memories of when I spent a year in a church related service program in the Lower East Side of NYC in 1969-70. I did work helping neighborhood citizen participation groups obtain federal funding to more actively participation in urban renewal projects. Unlike Americrop, we were not trying to directly provide solutions but simply better enable the community, itself, to have an impact on what was happening to it. Our apartment on East 3rd Street, between Avenues C and D, was broken into about once a month. I was also held up at knife-point. I was lucky that guns were not as prevalent then, although there were several shoot-outs on our block. This experience taught me to be careful and made me more aware of the real dangers within our cities. However, it did not stop me from doing things to help others nor to more fully experience the world.
This shooting and those at the Mother’s Day second line do not deter us from being active in New Orleans and continuing to be a part of the rich culture like the second lines and going out for music at night (see New Orleans Second Lines: The Original Big 7 Returns). We are just careful about what we do and where we go and when we do it. The service was another look at the city's culture and the power of community. It was a very moving experience.
I hope that the shooting does not deter others from coming to help in New Orleans. I do hope that those who come are careful about what they do to reduce the possibility of getting in harm’s, both for themselves, their parents, the communities they come to serve, and the impact of other’s who might follow them.