Carrying a Bible and a gun, a pastor tends to an unsettled New Orleans

Pastor Isaiah Stewart works with student LauKisha Bering-Watson while teaching a concealed-carry class at his church, House of Healing Outreach Church, in New Orleans on Nov. 19, 2022. (Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post)
11 min

NEW ORLEANS — Pastor Isaiah Stewart long ago lost count of the number of funerals he’s presided over as he has sought to bring comfort to a city stricken by a cycle of gun violence that seems never-ending.

“Just when you think it’s hit this level of bad, really bad, somehow it gets worse,” Stewart said on a recent afternoon. “You pray to find the words, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to say anymore.”

The next morning, Stewart would officiate at a memorial for a 19-year-old teenager who had been shot and killed, another victim of the so-called “street justice” that has unnerved residents of this storied Southern city and led elected officials to call what is happening here a public health crisis.

“Died on the same day, on the same street, in the same way in which his dad was killed three years ago,” Stewart said.

The pastor went quiet for a moment, contemplating what his message from the pulpit could be to a woman who had lost her husband to violence and was now preparing to bury her son, two circumstances of unimaginable heartbreak a few years apart. “I’m at a loss,” he finally said. “What do you even say? What can I possibly say that would make her feel better?”

Lord willing, the words would come. Stewart would bring his weathered Bible. But underneath his pastoral robe, he would wear his bulletproof vest and a utility belt that holds his 9mm pistol — a form of protection in a city where even funerals have been disrupted by gunfire.

In recent years, Stewart’s ministry had gone far beyond consoling victims of gun violence — into teaching churchgoers and other New Orleanians how to use a gun to protect themselves in a city where police don’t always come when you dial 911.

A minister of peace, Stewart was also a man of practicality.

“This is our reality,” he said. “At lot of times, it feels like you’re on your own.”

Stewart, the 39-year-old executive pastor at the House of Healing Outreach Church in the Mid-City neighborhood, has had an uncomfortably close seat to the anguish of a city that for generations has struggled with one of the highest murder rates in the country.

Gun battles on the street outside his church have sent bullets flying; a bloodied victim shot outside once scrambled through the front door of the small orange brick chapel on Conti Street seeking refuge during one Sunday service. Nearly every member of the church has been touched by gun violence in some way or another — including parishioners who have been shot or lost family or friends to the gunfire that has become a near-daily soundtrack for many residents across the city.

As a minister, Stewart, a Bay Area native who moved to New Orleans 20 years ago, has devoted much of his life preaching to young people, trying to keep them from falling into the pattern of violence that has made murder a leading cause of death for young Black men in the city. He has urged them to turn away from what he calls the “crazy life” and gravitate toward peace.

But Stewart cannot recall a time when the streets here felt so unsettled, so turbulent.

Gunfire that used to be heard mostly at night now erupts more frequently during the day, a level of brazenness that some here believe is a symptom of perpetrators who feel they have nothing to fear from law enforcement. While residents in poorer, predominantly Black neighborhoods continue to bear the brunt of the bloodshed, shocking incidents of violence had spread to other parts of the city.

A mass shooting killed one and injured four others, including a child, at a parade during the city’s Mardi Gras festivities in February. Two weeks ago, patrons at a packed Mid-City restaurant along Canal Street were forced to dive for cover when a gunman opened fire from the sidewalk. A waiter, who police said was the target of the attack, was shot and killed. A tourist in town for the city’s annual Jazz & Heritage Festival was wounded by a bullet that came through a wall.

Earlier this week, a bus packed with schoolchildren paused to avoid gunfire while transporting them home from classes. Police told the Times Picayune that one of the alleged shooters had warned the driver to stop to avoid the crossfire. Miraculously, no one was injured.

New Orleans’ homicide rate is far from the record-setting heights of the mid-1990s, when a proliferation of killings earned it a reputation as the murder capital of the country. But the 265 murders reported across the city last year were the highest recorded since the murky floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina devastated the city nearly 20 years ago.

Like other major cities, New Orleans has suffered an exodus of police officers in recent years. The force of roughly 900 officers, down nearly 400 since 2018 and hundreds short of the budgeted 1,600 members, has struggled to keep up with surging reports of violent crime, including shootings, robberies and carjackings. On some nights, fewer than half a dozen officers patrol this expansive part of Mid-City because of staffing shortages, according to local reports. Last summer, one wearied officer walked off the job mid-shift, one of the many openings that the city has struggled to fill.

“Fifteen minutes to never, that’s their response time. And most of the time, it feels like never,” Stewart said, reflecting the frustrations of residents who complain that their 911 calls often go unanswered.

At a recent news conference, Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) touted statistics that suggested homicides, carjackings and nonfatal shootings so far this year were slightly down compared with the same period in 2022. But to many people here, including Stewart, it doesn’t feel that way.

Outside the barbershop where Stewart gets his hair cut, a man was shot twice and wounded by a group of kids who had tried to rob him and steal his car. A woman he knew was carjacked by kids who threatened to shoot her. Lately, his congregants seemed more scared than ever, fearful of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stewart understands the fear. Several years ago, he was in his car in Uptown New Orleans when an armed group ran up and tried to carjack him. He wasn’t in a fancy car. “It was an old Pontiac. I had a clergy sticker on it, my Dillard University alumni sticker,” Stewart said, referring to the historic Black university in New Orleans. “I thought, ‘You are going to jack me for this?’”

Stewart already had a concealed-carry permit but didn’t have the gun in the car. He escaped by opening the door and punching the gas, knocking down his young assailants as he drove away — a lucky break that he worried would not happen again. For him, it was a moment of clarity: It wasn’t enough to simply own a gun or have that weapon in an accessible place. He needed to learn how to use it.

Shortly after, he went to a local gun range to practice shooting. “I was like the only Black man there,” Stewart recalled. One day, a man in a jacket covered with Confederate flag patches approached him. Stewart braced for a confrontation, but instead the man offered advice on his form. “I realized that this was kind of breaking racial barriers. This White guy talking to a Black guy about guns,” he recalled.

Stewart thought about other Black people who owned guns but didn’t have a license or know how to properly use them, perhaps intimidated by what he describes as a “White-male-dominated gun industry.” Over time, Stewart became a licensed firearms instructor, and when demand for guns skyrocketed during the pandemic in response to surging violent crime, he began to see teaching people about guns as part of his calling as a pastor.

Gun violence is deadly, Stewart said, “but so is having a gun that you don’t know how to properly use.”

Now, at least one Saturday a month inside the small chapel here, Stewart presides over a separate ministry that increasingly takes up more of his time. He teaches beleaguered New Orleans residents how to obtain a concealed-weapons permit and use a gun.

“I know people will say, ‘Why is this happening in a church?’” Stewart said. “But if you read the Bible, Jesus told the disciples to protect themselves. … And to me, as a pastor, I am to look after people. And that’s what I am doing. Helping people who want to protect themselves.”

Stewart’s day-long classes are capped at about 20 people and include hours of instruction about Louisiana gun laws and their rights as gun owners. He instructs people on how to properly store and use a gun, including having attendees practice with a plastic dummy firearm, along with other self-defense tactics. The group spends hours practicing at a local range.

At first, only a handful of people showed up for Stewart’s classes, but demand has steadily increased. He estimates that he helped certify at least 300 people last year for concealed-carry permits. His classes have been predominantly people of color — and, lately, many of his students have been women.

At one recent class, one of students was LauKisha Bering-Watson, a 48-year-old Uber driver. Days before, she had been delivering a food order when someone tried to carjack her. Afterward, she purchased a gun and signed up for one of Stewart’s classes. She had never fired a gun before, but could not afford to stop working.

“This is my livelihood,” Behring-Watson said during the class. “I cannot let fear stop me from working.”

Like many across the city, Stewart sees no easy solution to the deep societal problems that plague his adopted hometown, a city he fiercely loves and is devoted to despite the many existential challenges that make it hard for people to live and thrive there.

A place that is so attractive to — and increasingly dependent economically — on tourists had long provided little in the way of opportunity for young people in a city stricken by deep racial and economic inequality. “These kids that are out there doing this stuff, they have no hope,” he said. “This life, it gets them at a younger and younger age, and it’s hard to pull them away, to show them there’s a different way.”

Stewart worries about how much more the city and its residents can take. New Orleans always seemed to be bracing for the next hurricane, the next big storm, but to him, they were already caught in a different kind of storm, one with no end in sight.

He steadied himself for the funeral of the 19-year-old. It was the first memorial he had officiated for a young person in the city in nearly two years. He had stopped doing them after teenagers showed up with guns at a memorial for another boy who had been shot and killed, because it felt too dangerous.

But how he could he refuse this family? “My mother doesn’t want me to do it, but my wife said, ‘This is your job,’” Stewart said. “And it is. So I will be there, in my robe. But under my robe, I will have on my bulletproof vest. … That’s the reality of this city.”