The last thing Pastor John Gerhardt wants is to be perceived as a great white hope who moved to New Orleans to save Central City, although he could claim success in saving at least small parts of it, particularly the young people he's mentored over the years. Most recently he saved a piece of the neighborhood's history when his ministry bought St. Monica's Catholic Church and renovated it as the new location of his Castle Rock Community Church and Urban Impact Ministries (UIM).
Castle Rock will celebrate its grand opening with a weekend of activities Oct. 26-28, beginning with the blessing and dedication of the new facility at 3 p.m. Friday. (For a schedule of activities, visit www.urbanimpact.org.)
Gerhardt has ministered to people in Central City for 14 years from a former bank building and dance hall on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Since opening Castle Rock/UIM there in 1998, he has developed a variety of programs to fill the needs of the church's growing membership and its expanding role in the community. But space had become a problem.
The new location on Galvez Street has an old-fashioned white church with a cross atop of a small steeple, a brick school building and a large playground. Established as a mission parish in 1924, St. Monica's sat empty for more than three years after the Archdiocese of New Orleans closed it and dozens of other parishes to offset property damages suffered during Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in 2005, coupled with a shrinking parishioner base in areas that were slow to repopulate after the flood.
UIM and Castle Rock Community Church purchased St. Monica's in May 2011, renovated the property and has moved all its programs. Gerhardt says the new location has two great benefits: It's in the heart of Central City, the community to which he has devoted his life's work, and it has lots of space for programs including Tuesday and Thursday night youth Bible studies, Friday and Saturday night youth recreation programs, afterschool tutoring and more.
"We want to create neighborhoods where kids can ride their bikes," Gerhardt says. For that to happen, he says, they need a safe place to gather, a church that cares, schools of excellence and a home their family owns. "When you see families start to become whole, buy their first home, children going to college, you know something is working," he says.
Gerhardt's journey to New Orleans began in 1989, when the Wisconsin native (who plays a pretty mean alto saxophone), was a youth minister in Minnesota and accompanied a group of students on a mission trip to Chicago.
"It was the first time I'd ever seen a holistic ministry at work," he says. "The church bought real estate. They started a school, had a medical clinic. They even had a legal clinic."
A trip to New Orleans with a youth group the next year changed his life. Gerhardt, his wife and the youngsters worked in the heart of Central City for one week.
"We went back to Minnesota, and I told my wife, 'We don't even need to be thinking about coming to New Orleans,''' Gerhardt recalls. The more they tried to talk themselves out of it, however, the more obvious it became that they were Louisiana-bound.
They moved south in 1992 to work with UIM, established by another member of Gerhardt's denomination, and Gerhardt focused on the community around the Melpomene housing project. One of his first activities was taking six boys to Branson, Mo., to a sports camp for inner-city youth. The experience had such an effect on the boys that they started a Bible study group.
"Actually it was a Bible study/football group," Gerhardt says. "We had Bible study one day and we'd play touch football another day." The group would play football anywhere it could find a lighted parking lot. "We were kicked off quite a few Schwegmann's parking lots," he says.
A high school ministry was formed, a junior high ministry was added, and the UIM program continued to grow. Gerhardt purchased a former bank on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in 1995 and founded Castle Rock Community Church. He immersed himself in the community, forming relationships with neighbors and other churches, like the Central City Pastors Partnership. And he continues working with young people, trying to change the culture of crime and violence in the neighborhood. From the initial six boys, the ministry has grown to more than 150 active members from diverse backgrounds. "We have people with Ph.D.s and people trying to get their GED," Gerhardt says.
His reception in the community was rocky at times, but Gerhardt always acted with an eye toward improving the neighborhood and making it safe for families who live there.
"I don't go looking for trouble, but certain things we couldn't and shouldn't ignore," Gerhardt says. He recounts talking with a local gang leader and drug dealer who had encountered a group of adults rehabbing a house in Central City. "I just said to him, "Look, man, you can't be doing that. It's not right, and we're trying to do something different here, so would you mind not selling drugs around here? He said, 'That's how I roll.' I said, 'Well, this is how we roll. This will be a neighborhood where kids can ride their bikes, and this needs to be a safe corner."
A year later, Gerhardt met the new leader of the gang. "Some kids were hiding drugs in a building right next to one we were cleaning," he says. "I asked them to take it somewhere else." Word got back to the gang leader, who approached Gerhardt. "I told him that he needed to take it someplace else," the pastor says. The situation was diffused when Gerhardt and the young man realized they both liked the Fox network show 24. Such tense situations are not uncommon in the neighborhood. "It's not always easy, but you have to show some kind of moral presence," the pastor says. "It emboldens people who want to stand up against it."
Gerhardt knows about creating a presence. On weekdays he sometimes can be spotted driving through the neighborhood around his new church, knocking on doors and waking up kids for school. It might seem over the top, but Gerhardt says he sees positive results.
He also recognizes the irony of moving his church to a building named in honor of the patron saint of mothers of wayward sons. St. Monica followed her son Augustine for 17 years, traveling halfway across the Roman Empire imploring him to repent of his immoral ways. Gerhardt says he has comforted his share of mothers whose sons wouldn't listen, and he's buried more than his share of young men who lost their lives to violence, but he also has helped other kids avoid the dangers of the streets.
"Some of the same kids I tussled with 10, 15 years ago have changed their lives," he says. "A couple of them are youth ministers who grew up in the ministry."
— Phillip Manuel is a freelance writer and New Orleans native.