by Orissa Arend
William Barnwell is an Episcopal priest and a storyteller. Angels in the Wilderness is a brilliant prototype of a way to deepen ministry and community organizing through the art of telling and listening to stories. It consists of a series of interviews with mostly young people, but also a few elders, that Barnwell has come to know through mentoring, advocacy, and Bible study. William Barnwell is an Episcopal priest and a storyteller. Angels in the Wilderness is a brilliant prototype of a way to deepen ministry and community organizing through the art of telling and listening to stories. It consists of a series of interviews with mostly young people, but also a few elders, that Barnwell has come to know through mentoring, advocacy, and Bible study. Linetta Gilbert, a member of Christian Unity Baptist Church and citywide leader, cried when she read the book, so touched was she that someone sought out the stories of the overlooked few, “mirroring the lives of many.” She says, “William pays attention to the current motivating and challenging influences of the city,” taking the skill of listening to a whole new level.Barnwell organizes the book around three themes: Angels in the wilderness, the value of stories, and each person’s take on racism in New Orleans. Mark’s gospel recounts: “The spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.” The wilderness referenced here is mostly New Orleans and its mean streets, sometimes prison. Satan and the wild beasts come in the form of drugs, racism, a desperate lack of resources, cancer, and once in a while, church. “Tell me about a wilderness experience you’ve had and who were the angels,” Barnwell asks his interviewees. Here is a small sampling from contributors who are clearly angels themselves as they minister to us:
Kelly Harris DeBErry
Kelly Harris DeBerry is a singing poet and active member of Christian Unity Baptist Church. Her great-grandmother, she learned at a family funeral, was a poet also. Harris DeBerry is a believer, but she says that is a difficult task. “Jesus is going to fix it,” she heard at Alton Sterling’s funeral. Sterling was an African American man shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge. “We’ve been telling ourselves [that] forever. . . and we’re still waiting.” As a child she was afraid of going to hell for eating an extra cookie. In college, she was told that Christianity was the slave religion. Believing is hard because “life is so uncertain. It’s a struggle because I’m human. It’s a struggle because us Black folks have been waiting so long for justice. It’s a struggle because I’m flawed.” She says she’s still fighting the past, and sometimes even retreating from her own gift. The last part of her poem called “Names Don’t Name Me” goes:
The N word don’t hang in doors or from trees or chase my feet or grandpano more.
That’s history, they say.6th graders know these things.They learned it all before knowing the right way to rub words together to start a fire.
Derrick Strong, coming up as a fighter, gang member, and lawbreaker, knows how to “rub words together to start a fire.” He thinks you could “change the world with art.” And in a way he has. While locked up in Orleans Parish Prison he made drawings of the deplorable dehumanizing conditions around him. His fellow inmates called him the Black Jesus. He never figured out exactly why. His art work was presented to lawmakers and its irrefutable witness contributed to the formation of the Federal Consent Decree which demands significant changes in the way Orleans Parish Prison operates. The streets of New Orleans turned out to be more deadly for Strong even than Orleans Parish Prison. In October of 2016 he was shot nine times in a drive-by. But you would never have known it as he performed his mesmerizing rap at Barnwell’s first book-signing at Ashe Cultural Arts Center a few weeks ago. Strong is one of the Icons for Peace, “young leaders committed to peace through civic engagement and education,” as they describe themselves.
Ed Buckner, a baker by trade, noticed bored kids chasing chickens around his 7th Ward neighborhood. Instead of chastising them, he taught them to sew – an only-in-New-Orleans alternative to street violence. Seventeen-year-old Tugga Cloud became the Big Chief of the only all-youth Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Red Flame Hunters. He explains, “Meeting at Mr. Ed’s, sewing our Indian suits, learning step by step. Being an Indian made a real difference because I got a lot of younger kids that look up to me, and I can’t do nothing bad because that’s setting a bad example for the younger kids that are looking up to me as the Big Chief.” He adds, “As long as I got the needle and thread, I’m out of trouble. As long as I got that needle and thread.” Presence, being with, caring enough to stay awake and pay attention. This is what Barnwell demonstrates in his book. This is what Jesus asked his disciples to do in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s not easy. The disciples couldn’t do it. But Barnwell and Buckner have both achieved that marvelous feat, each in their own way. As Big Chief Tugga says, “Mr. Ed, he’s like a father and friend. He’s a real cool guy. He’s always there when I need him. Like if I need some pearls or beads or dental floss, he’s going out and get them. Sometimes when I’m down or somethin’, say I’m aggravated with my momma or somethin’, I go see Mr. Ed and he gets me laughin’ and I forget all about it.” Read the book and notice your angels. And then notice also how you are an angel to others.Readings for “Angles” have been held or will be held at Ashe Cultural Arts Center, Octavia Books, Yale Divinity School, the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, Justice and Beyond, Christian Unity Baptist Church and Trinity Episcopal Church.
Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist, and author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.