NEW ORLEANS -- The city of New Orleans lost a crusader against violence Tuesday with the passing of Pastor John Raphael. He led the congregation of New Hope Baptist Church in Central City for 25 years.
He lost his battle with bone cancer Tuesday.
Pastor Raphael gave many eulogies over the years at New Hope Baptist Church. Many of them were for young people lost to violence.
“Pastor opened up these doors to anyone that needed someone to be buried,” said Desiree Watson Jones, a member of New Hope’s congregation and a former drug addict who firmly believes Pastor Raphael’s open arms saved her.
She’s one of many with similar stories.
“He realized that some people weren't gonna ever come to church except those services. So, his thought in the back of his mind was, maybe I can reach them when they come here,” said Jamaal Weathersby, pastor at True Vine Baptist Church in Westwego, and a long-time former assistant to Raphael at New Hope.
Now, loved ones are preparing a eulogy for Raphael, who lost his battle with bone cancer Tuesday at the young age of 60.
“It's a blow to this community. It's a blow. You know? I didn't expect to wake up to this this morning,” said James Thompson, who lives nearby in Central City.
The people Raphael touched are almost too many to count, well beyond his congregation, out in the Central City community that his church sits in the heart of and beyond.
“I never seen nothing like this man. Come in here and change it,” Thompson said through tears Tuesday. Admitting he was once “the worst of the worst” in the neighborhood, Thompson said Raphael helped him turn his life around.
“I got a bullet hole in me. I'm able to say, man, look, I'm alright. You win and walk away without anger in my heart,” he said.
Raphael's actions in the neighborhood were powerful in themselves, but he was also known for his words. He posted ‘Thou shall not kill’ signs and ‘Enough’ signs all around Central City because he wanted the violence to stop.
He was truly a man on a mission, from leading Central City in the 2007 city-wide crime march to camping out in a hunger fast on the neutral ground at the MLK Memorial. His crusade all began where his career began as a New Orleans police officer.
“The thing about John that made him different was that he really was a man of the people. He was in the community. His efforts in trying to reduce violence were right on target as far as reminding people we have a self-responsibility,” said NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas.
The NOPD is also where he began his 30-year marriage. His wife, Catherine, was also a cop.
“We met on the Mardi Gras parade route. His started where mine ended. We had never talked before and we started chatting. I invited him to church,” she remembered Tuesday.
The rest isn't history, but a legacy, in every life he touched, every life he saved by teaching people to think twice.
“He taught me these things. And I just pray to God that he send us another pastor like that,” Thompson said.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a statement about Raphael’s passing Tuesday. He said, “This morning my heart is heavy as the city of New Orleans mourns the death of Pastor John C. Raphael, Jr. of New Hope Baptist Church. I have personally relied on the wisdom and counsel of Pastor Raphael over the years, not just because of what he said, but because of how he lived. Pastor Raphael will be dearly missed.
"Whether he was preaching on the corner, fasting for days on MLK, mentoring young people, or challenging us all to do more to end the death and violence on our streets, Pastor Raphael was consistent and responsible in challenging us all to do our part to reflect the love of God and improve our city. May our thoughts and prayers be with the Raphael and New Hope families.”
Church officials said Tuesday that they expect people from all over the country to attend services for Pastor Raphael, especially since such a big part of his ministry was traveling to Africa, Haiti and even Panama. Raphael even took some Central City kids with him on his foreign missions to show them the world outside New Orleans.
Funeral services have been set for two days next week.
On Tuesday, July 2, viewing is scheduled to begin at New Hope Baptist Church at 3 p.m. with a funeral service at 7 p.m. On Wednesday at the Mahailia Jackson Theatre, viewing is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. with a funeral service at 11 a.m.