And now you know … the rest of the Hollygrove church story
NEW ORLEANS — Journalists don’t always get to do “Whatever happened…
NEW ORLEANS — “The storm of the century,” it was called.
For days, the monster storm threatened the lives of Charles and Angela Marsalis. But ultimately, the Christian couple survived. And, as they see it, the experience prepared them for what came next.
“God was making me ready.”
“God was making me ready,” Charles said in a recent interview at the Hollygrove Church of Christ, the thriving inner-city congregation that he and his wife planted in the years after Katrina.
Angela echoed her husband, maintaining that God kept them alive for a reason.
“I know that God is real because he got us through that,” she said as the Hollygrove church celebrated its 10th anniversary. “So I serve him fearfully because I know how big he is, and I know he was preparing us.”
“Girl, you better get out of town!”
Angela Marsalis’ mother made clear what she thought her daughter should do as Hurricane Katrina — a Category 5 storm packing 160 mile-per-hour winds — threatened a direct hit on New Orleans in August 2005.
In a perfect world, Angela — a substitute schoolteacher who also helped each day with an after-school program at church — would have done exactly as her mother urged. She, her husband, Charles, and their boys would have joined the clogged procession of vehicles fleeing the tempest predicted to make landfall that Monday morning.
But Charles — who worked 12-hour days on a tugboat yet still volunteered most mornings at a Christian outreach center — had just spent $2,000 to fix the family’s blue 2000 Dodge Caravan, wiping out their bank account.
Jittery over the calamity that could befall the bowl-shaped metropolitan area, Angela begged her husband: “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
But her practical side knew they lacked the cash to keep their gas tank full. They simply could not afford to heed the mayor’s mandatory evacuation order.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
New Orleans opened the Superdome, home of the NFL’s Saints, as a “refuge of last resort” for thousands of residents. But the Marsalises decided to wait out the storm a few miles from the stadium — at church.
The stout brick Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ had withstood Hurricane Betsy, which in 1965 struck with 125 mph winds and flooded large parts of New Orleans. The Marsalises also were pleased to learn that the church had a generator, in case Katrina knocked out the power.
That Sunday afternoon, Charles, Angela and three of their boys — Charles Jr., then 17; August, 15; and Willie, 13 — stuffed a change of clothes in Winn-Dixie grocery bags and brought along toothbrushes, pillows and blankets.
Their pet Daisy, a black, mixed-breed puppy with golden tips on her ears, joined them in the van. Oldest son Dewayne, 20, had his own place and was not with the family, while Jaroy, 17, was visiting relatives out of state.
Figuring they’d go home the next day, the Marsalises didn’t pack much food. Friend and fellow church member Linda Green met them at the building. Also staying at the church were Green’s 18-year-old son, Jonathan; her brother, Bill Lundy; and church member Carol White.
The evacuees watched the news on a television in the “teen room” in the back of the church. Then, despite the handwritten sign out front that said “No Service Today,” they sang and prayed.
Angela remained anxious about the storm but said she felt better after praising the Lord. The wind and the rain started about 9 p.m. But eventually, everyone fell asleep — the Marsalises on chairs and couches in the teen room and the Greens on auditorium pews.
About 3 a.m. Monday, Angela awoke to a violent, rushing wind that sounded like an out-of-control freight train. The storm had knocked out the power, and all she could see was pitch black — the church generator did not work.
“God, please spare us,” Angela prayed.
On her knees, she reflected on a recent women’s retreat at Carrollton Avenue, where guest speaker Sandra Collins from Nashville, Tenn., talked about David pouring out his heart to God.
One passage in particular, from Psalm 124:4-6, helped bring a sense of peace to Angela: “The flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth.”
She fell back asleep.
About three hours later, the eye of Katrina made landfall in southeastern Louisiana as a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 125 miles per hour. But New Orleans was spared the worst brunt of the storm.
When daylight came, the Marsalises opened a door and peered outside into the rain. About 3 feet of water covered the ground, rushing into the family’s van beside the building. However, only about an inch of moisture had seeped into the church — and just in the back.
They had thought the worst was over. Now, the water appeared to be rising in the once-dry auditorium.
No power meant no more television. The members staying at the church had a small radio but could not immediately find batteries. Even with their information flow cut off, it appeared to them that New Orleans had avoided the doomsday scenario many had feared.
The Marsalises decided they’d head home when the rain and the wind died down. Plan in place, the group fell back asleep on the pews. Later, they awoke and decided to gather their things, but when Charles stood up, his feet squished into soggy carpet. They had thought the worst was over. Now, the water appeared to be rising in the once-dry auditorium. They had no idea where it was coming from. (Only later did they learn of New Orleans’ broken levees.)
“We have the balcony next, y’all,” Angela joked to her family and friends.
But the joke became less funny as the water kept creeping higher. Eventually, the evacuees started counting the number of bricks down from the window to see how much the water line had risen. It became apparent that they needed to move their personal belongings, as well as their water cooler, to the balcony.
When they started hearing helicopters overhead, they took turns climbing to the roof and holding up signs asking for help.
At some point, as the water covered the top of the pews, a pirogue — a canoe made from a hollowed tree trunk — floated into the auditorium from the back of the building. The small, decorative boat had been filled with soft drinks at a church member’s recent Cajun-style retirement party.
Now, it seemed like a gift from God.
Charles pushed the pirogue, with son Willie and dog Daisy inside, to the pantry and filled it with communion crackers, three quarts of grape juice and paper products. A few of the boys donned baptismal gear as they trudged through the water.
The evacuees congregated that night in the wooden, movie-theater-style seats in the balcony. They lit candles and sang hymns such as “Just A Little Talk with Jesus,” “Climbing Up the Mountain” and “Mansion Over the Hilltop.” When they started hearing helicopters overhead, they took turns climbing to the roof and holding up signs asking for help.
By Tuesday, the church members were running low on food and water. Of equal concern was the rapidly melting ice that Linda, a diabetic, had brought to keep her insulin cool.
By then, they had found batteries for the radio and heard that stranded residents could take necessities from abandoned stores. So, Bill, Jonathan and Charles Jr. (who goes by “C.J.”) headed out with the pirogue to a supermarket a few blocks away.
They were gone so long, the others started wondering if they might have been arrested for looting. Finally, they returned with bags of Fritos and Doritos and bottles of water and sports drinks. They couldn’t open the locked ice machine at the store.
Wednesday afternoon, C.J. and Jonathan Green left again in search of ice — this time taking a hammer to pry open the machine. While they were gone, a Red Cross rescue boat stopped at the church. The parents’ elation at the boat’s arrival was tempered by their concern for their sons.
“If you don’t come now, we don’t know when you’re going to leave,” a rescuer told Angela.
Condensed version of this story: Big milestone in the Big Easy
She could stay at the church and risk not being rescued, or she could trust that God would take care of the boys wherever they were. She made the difficult decision to leave.
Before floating away, she scribbled a message on the outside of the building: “C.J. GO TO BOWLING ALLEY.”
Angela meant he should go to a bridge holding evacuees about a half-mile from the bowling alley, which was under water. She later wished she had been more specific.
Leaving the church in the boat, the group viewed the utter devastation for the first time: Houses torn apart in every direction. Oily lakes where streets used to be. Worst of all, bodies floating in the water.
Approaching the bridge from a distance, Angela saw what looked to her like a giant sea of ants. Hundreds of evacuees — hot, hungry and angry over their treatment — stretched across the bridge. Some had been there for days.
Angela tried to lighten the mood, joking that she needed to put on makeup before joining the crowd on the bridge. Still, she found her surroundings difficult to stomach. Sick, elderly people in wheelchairs and babies crying from hunger baked in the unrelenting sun.
On the bridge, the scene was one of despair mixed with irony. There were no restrooms or water. But fresh from their treks through mud, many evacuees sported brand-new, sparkling white tennis shoes apparently looted from a Foot Locker. A few evacuees peddled illegal drugs. Others lugged stolen, 40-inch televisions.
“Oh, baby, we are having church tonight!”
“If those people can be on fire for the devil like that, then we need to get busy for God,” Charles told his family.
Angela focused on encouraging the desperate souls on the bridge. The Marsalises didn’t have many chips or bottles of water left, but they shared what they had.
At nightfall, they felt a bit of relief as the temperatures cooled. Still, they had not seen the two missing boys in the crowd, and they were worried.
Lighting candles in the pitch dark that Wednesday night, they began singing again. As they lifted their voices to God, a few nearby evacuees grumbled. But soon, the church members attracted an appreciative crowd.
Folks requested their favorite hymns.
“Oh, baby, we are having church tonight!” one excited elderly woman remarked.
They slept in shifts on the bridge.
With the craziness going on around them — including occasional gunfire — they didn’t feel comfortable sleeping without someone in the family keeping watch. Not that sleeping on concrete could be described in any way as restful.
On Thursday, they were taken to a different bridge — and forced to leave their puppy behind. They never did find out what happened to Daisy.
Eventually, helicopters started dropping military MREs — “meals, ready-to-eat” — and bottles of water in a field, and the crowd would rush to grab them.
By Friday, buses began arriving to take evacuees to shelters outside of New Orleans. The church members kept waiting, hoping they’d spot C.J. and Jonathan in the crowd.
But on Saturday, a helicopter plucked the group from the overpass and took them to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, where commercial airlines were flying hurricane victims to major cities in Texas.
As he boarded a yellow-and-blue ATA Airlines plane, Charles — who had never flown before and didn’t particularly relish the prospect — couldn’t help but think: “God has a funny sense of humor.”
They learned in the air that they were headed to Austin.
For all the hell they had endured, the church members could not believe the welcome evacuees received in Austin.
Airline personnel hugged them as they walked off the plane, even though they hadn’t showered in days. Strangers offered money, food and water. One woman begged Angela to let her take her shopping for clothes.
After brief medical exams, the evacuees boarded buses and were taken to the Austin Convention Center. At the city’s designated main shelter, they were greeted by Mayor Will Wynn and given wristbands and clothes, food and bedding. Big-screen televisions showed a mix of cartoons and news coverage of Katrina.
“These people rolled out the red carpet for us,” Linda said. “They treated us like royalty.”
On Sunday, Charles and Angela attended a worship service at the convention center. That same day, their prayers — and Linda’s too — were answered. After contacting a relative in Baton Rouge, one of the Marsalises’ sons had located his missing brother and Jonathan.
“Praise the Lord!” Angela screamed, reaching for the phone and telling August to let her talk to C.J., who was staying with an uncle.
It turned out that C.J. and Jonathan had gone to the bowling alley, as Angela’s sign instructed. But finding it under water, they returned to the church.
When the boys were rescued, they were taken to a different bridge than their families. Problems with cell phone signals kept them from contacting their parents.
A Carrollton Avenue pictorial directory in hand, Kirk Garrison traipsed through the convention center filled with thousands of evacuees.
Repeatedly pointing out pictures of the Marsalises, he kept asking people: “Have you seen them?”
Finally, Garrison found them. A former interim minister at the Carrollton Avenue church, he had driven 228 miles from Abilene, Texas, to tell his friends that church members across the country were eager to meet their every need.
Garrison, who later returned to Carrollton Avenue as a minister, bought tickets for the Marsalises and Linda to fly to Nashville, where church members had offered to house them.
Perry Rogers, a Carrollton Avenue member who had organized the recent women’s retreat, arranged for the Marsalises to stay with Collins, the retreat speaker whose spiritual insight had helped Angela weather the storm.
But Angela didn’t know who her host would be until she arrived at Collins’ house.
“Mrs. Collins! Mrs. Collins!” Angela said, delighted to see her.
The Marsalises stayed with the Collinses for three weeks, plenty of time for Angela to endear herself to everyone with her red beans and rice.
Sandra helped Angela find a job with a child-care center, and Charles went to work for a landscaping company. The boys enrolled in school, and church members helped the family move into an apartment with no deposit required.
Their first Sunday in town, the Marsalises worshipped at the Otter Creek Church of Christ, where Collins is a member. Angela could not control her crying. Every time someone mentioned “Jesus” or “God,” she became emotional.
“God spared my family,” she whispered to herself.
The Marsalises fit in quickly in Nashville. Best of all, Music City seemed a million miles from the Big Easy. Back home, everything was in shambles— including their flooded home.
Here, everything was fixed, or so it seemed.
The last thing they wanted to do was move back home — the horror was too fresh, the outlook too uncertain. But Fred Franke, then an elder at the Carrollton Avenue church, believed New Orleans was exactly where God wanted the Marsalis family.
Determined to rebuild both the community and the church in New Orleans, Franke returned home after evacuating to Florida and formed a relief ministry called Operation Nehemiah.
Franke worked 14- to 16-hour days soliciting donations from church members across the nation and organizing volunteer work crews to come to New Orleans.
But, in Franke’s view, New Orleans desperately needed resident ministers — people willing to help with the spiritual concerns of the traumatized people.
“We really need you down here.”
He could think of no better candidate than Charles, who before Katrina had helped plant a church and baptize 18 people in a poor part of the city.
“We really need you down here,” Franke kept telling Charles.
Eventually, Charles stopped answering his cell phone when the caller ID flashed Franke’s number.
But when Franke got Angela’s number and asked her to hand the phone to Charles, he relented.
After much prayer, Charles determined that it must be God’s will for him to return to New Orleans — if only to put an end to the calls from Franke, he later joked.
Charles moved back to New Orleans that December, ministering to hurricane victims and working hard to repair his own family’s house, which had fared better than most. Angela and the boys finished the school year in Nashville, then returned home in the summer.
Back home, Charles and Angela discovered a purpose in the trials they endured.
Before out-of-state church members would enter a house to clear out the mess and debris, the couple would help the volunteers and homeowners get to know each other.
Charles and Angela would gather everyone in a circle and pray. They’d explain what motivated Christians to travel hundreds of miles to help someone they don’t know — to do a job for free that otherwise would cost thousands of dollars. They’d hug the residents and give them a Bible or inspirational book, along with information on how to contact the church.
When they didn’t know how the story would end, when they feared that they just might melt away on a crowded overpass, a frustrated Charles prayed that God would save him — or not.
“You’re going to bless me now or you’re going to bless me later — make up your mind,” he reasoned with his heavenly father. “If we’re going to die, we’re going to die doing your work. If we’re going to stay here, we’re still going to witness. So, make up your mind and do what you want to do.”
Blessed with the full picture, the Marsalises would look back and see God preparing them. Preparing them to come back home. Preparing them to minister to a city full of souls in need of love, encouragement — and most of all, hope.
The devil doesn’t scare Charles Marsalis.
The drug dealers sure don’t.
Marsalis and his wife, Angela, both grew up in Hollygrove, a high-crime area where dealers build relationships with small children by treating them to a piece of candy or a dollar bill.
“I saw a person murdered in this neighborhood when I was 12, so I know what these kids are seeing,” Charles said on a Saturday in January 2008.
Two years after the Marsalises had survived Hurricane Katrina by fleeing to the balcony of their church, they were confident they knew why God spared them: to share Jesus with this neighborhood beset with drugs, gunfire and prostitution.
“It’s going to be a battle, but I think we’re going to win that war,” Charles Marsalis said at the time. “I trust God.”
In Hollygrove, as in most of New Orleans, evidence of Katrina remained: the boarded-up windows, the lingering debris, the weeds outside homes whose owners had not returned.
Angela Marsalis said she witnessed this “raggedy” scene and decided the children needed hope.
They needed Jesus.
The Marsalises started inviting boys and girls to study the Bible.
Angela’s mother, Verna Wallace, who was living in a FEMA trailer as she repaired her flooded home, let them use her front porch for the studies.
In return for the children’s attention, Charles and Angela served snacks and soft drinks.
While Charles played football in the street with a group of boysk, Angela set up a storyboard of Jesus calling Peter to become a “fisher of men.” Outside the chain-link fence, beside a liquor store closed since Katrina, the boys laughed and high-fived as Charles caught a pass and ran.
“He let an old man burn him,” Charles joked, teasing one boy.
Later, the boys gathered on the porch and bowed their heads as Delvin Herrington, 12, prayed. They sang “Open the Eyes of My Heart” and “Firm Foundation.”
They listened as Angela described Jesus telling the fishermen to let down their nets even though they had not caught anything all night.
“Do you think they’re going to catch anything?” she asked.
“Yeah!” the boys replied.
“Why?” she said.
“Because that’s Jesus!” said Ishmel Wiltz, 12.
Hollygrove was accustomed to church groups hosting an Easter egg hunt or a Christmas party. But when the special event was over, the children — and their parents — often wouldn’t see the church folks again.
The Marsalises made it a priority to get to know the children — really get to know them.
They hosted sleepovers and took the children to movies and sporting events. They promised the boys basketball goals at the new Church of Christ planned in Hollygrove.
Hollygrove would be a satellite church of the Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ, a middle-class congregation — 10 minutes and a world away from Hollygrove — that delayed its own hurricane repairs to invest in the church plant.
“This nucleus needed to be nurtured and developed,” Carrollton Avenue elder Robert Carpenter said, explaining the established congregation’s desire to help not only with physical needs but also with spiritual renewal in Katrina’s wake.
Still lacking needed funds for its own recovery, Carrollton Avenue spent $160,000 to buy old Emanuel Spiritual Church, a red-brick, storm-ravaged building abandoned after Katrina.
That meant when temperatures soared, Carrollton Avenue made do with window air-conditioning units that blew hot air and dripped water into five-gallon buckets in its unfinished education wing.
“But instead of asking the question, ‘What about our building?’ I can still remember one of the ladies saying, ‘Well, what can we do to help Hollygrove?’” said Garrison, the Carrollton Avenue minister. “That’s the heart of the congregation.”
Christian volunteers from out of state helped gut the flooded building and trim weeds. Others donated funds to make the new congregation a reality.
The Hollygrove church opened in January 2009. More than 100 people celebrated the Lord’s Supper together after a communion meditation by Charles Marsalis, Hollygrove’s preacher. The service ended with a blessing and dedication by the elders of the Carrollton Avenue church.
Then the real work began.
A siren wailed in the background as the back door opened and another worshiper squeezed into the assembly.
“You better keep God in your life because people are getting killed in their own home or robbed in their own neighborhood,” Hollygrove Church of Christ member John Ellis told the congregation. “We need the church in the neighborhood and the neighborhood in the church.”
It was a Sunday in January 2014. In the five years since its opening, the Hollygrove church had brought hope — not to mention crawfish boils and fish-fry fellowships — to a neighborhood that desperately needed it.
Still, church planters Charles and Angela Marsalis had faced constant reminders of the challenges they faced.
Months earlier, they had witnessed the spiritual warfare up close while watching television one night.
“We heard this boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,” Charles said. “I looked at Angela and said, ‘Is that gunshots?’ … A young man was shot like nine times right across from the church. They just don’t care where they shoot you at.”
“When I went outside, I was still smelling the smoke from the gun,” Angela said. “That was scary.”
“Lord, Be There,” the congregation sang on this Sunday. And for the Marsalises, there was no doubt that the Lord had been there, every step of the way, starting on the front porch where they first taught the neighborhood children.
Terrance Clark was one of the original children who made his way to the porch. Now 14, he was in the pews for worship on this Lord’s Day.
“Everybody just started coming for the food,” said Terrance, who had been baptized on a recent Sunday. “But pretty soon, like every day, everybody wanted to come and sit down and learn about God.”
Like her younger brother, Malickah Clark, 17, said the Marsalises taught her about Jesus.
“Just the vibe that they give,” Malickah said of why she kept showing up and eventually gave her life to Christ. “They really care about you. They push you forward to keep knowing who Jesus is and doing the right things.”
God doesn’t play favorites.
Charles Marsalis stresses that message at the Hollygrove Church of Christ.
“I’m just plain ol’ Charles,” the minister said. “I’m not going to treat anybody differently, no matter who you are.”
Not even if you’re an Academy Award-winning actor named Morgan Freeman — in the Big Easy to interview Marsalis and his wife, Angela, for the National Geographic Channel series “The Story of God,” which aired in the spring of 2016.
“Some of the folks, including one of my sons, was watching me to see how I was going to react,” the father of five said, referring to Freeman’s presence at a Sunday worship assembly. “My son said, ‘Pops, you never called this man out one time.’”
Of course, the actor who played God in the box-office hit “Bruce Almighty” and its sequel, “Evan Almighty,” was impossible to miss. So were the cameras that filmed the congregation singing “Shelter in the Time of Storm.”
“It’s not about us at all. To God be the glory.”
Charles did address Freeman when the star jokingly took money out of the collection plate. “Boy, you about to get whooped in the church,” the minister said he told him.
At the family’s home after the service, Angela served Freeman and his entourage baked chicken and macaroni and cheese. She admitted being a bit star-struck, even though she described the actor as extremely friendly and easygoing.
“I really was speechless in some parts, even though I know he’s human,” she said with a laugh.
In the summer of 2015, a representative of Freeman’s production company, Revelations Entertainment, had contacted The Christian Chronicle to see if the couple — the subjects of a series of profiles in the Christian newspaper — might share their story on camera.
The Chronicle passed along that request, and the couple reluctantly agreed.
Related: The vivid faces of Hurricane Katrina
“We almost didn’t do it,” Charles said. “The producer … wanted to go to the river and act like we were baptizing someone. I told them, ‘I don’t play with the Lord like that. We don’t fake a service.’ I told them, ‘This is reality to us. It’s not a reality show.’”
Angela said she and her husband hoped their interview would bring glory to God.
“I know God uses us as vessels,” she said. “It’s not about us at all. To God be the glory.”
The Marsalises told Freeman how they relied on their faith as floodwaters kept rising during Katrina.
The couple described singing on a bridge filled with desperate survivors — some selling drugs and carrying guns.
“I mean, I felt that the devil was at work,” Charles said. “I told my wife, ‘Nuh-uh, it’s time for us to get busy.’ And so we just started singing, and then the next thing we know, in the darkness, you can hear people saying, ‘Sing this song! Sing that song!’ And I can’t remember, how long did we sing?”
“All night!” Angela replied, as Freeman joined the couple in laughing at the memory. “We just knew that God would get us out of there.”
“Not even Katrina could shake that faith of God,” Charles added. “No way.”
On a Sunday in October 2017, 19-year-old Gregory Hawkins served communion at the Hollygrove Church of Christ.
Nearly a decade before, Hawkins had been one of the first children to join the Bible study on the porch.
“Greg had been with us since we started,” said Charles Marsalis, who baptized Hawkins. “We practically raised him up here.”
That made the tragedy that Sunday all the more difficult to bear.
Just minutes after the worship assembly, Hawkins was shot and killed just blocks from the church building.
Neighbors heard multiple shots about 2 p.m., and when officers arrived, they found the victim. Hawkins was taken to a hospital, where he later died. No arrest ever was made.
“Greg was one of the quiet kids,” Charles said the day after the shooting. “He didn’t really bother anybody. He would just go on about his business. If you messed with him, he wasn’t afraid to fight with you. But he wasn’t a kid who looked for trouble.”
Charles said Hawkins left church about 15 minutes early that Sunday, and something seemed to be troubling him.
When the shooting occurred, the Marsalises and some other Hollygrove members were at an annual joint picnic and fall festival with the Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ.
Related: In the Big Easy, despair meets hope
Garrison wrote on Facebook: “After rejoicing on a beautiful Sunday with Carrollton and Hollygrove at our annual fall picnic, we weep now at the murder of one of our young men who was shot around the corner from Hollygrove church after services. Prayers for peace and comfort for his family and all who loved him.”
Unlike some, Hawkins didn’t get pulled back into the streets, Garrison said. But the minister added, “The streets took his life.”
But even while grieving, the Marsalises maintained their resolve.
“We are not going nowhere,” Charles said. “As long as the Lord will have us here, we will stay here. This won’t stop what we’re trying to do. We’re going to keep on pushing.”
On the front row, happy children flashed toothy grins as they sang praises to God.
All around them were colorful balloons marking the 10th anniversary of the Hollygrove Church of Christ — a congregation just a little younger than many of them, born after the horrible destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
At the corner of Fig and Cambronne streets, this budding congregation has progressed from a front-porch Bible study to a body of believers that outgrew its original auditorium.
Shining the light of Jesus here are dedicated Christians from near and far — those who returned to their beloved city post-Katrina to help coordinate rebuilding efforts and others who travel to offer their support and encouragement.
On this weekend, many who love this church gathered in Hollygrove’s recently expanded building to celebrate its first decade and ask God to bring more souls to the Lord in the next.
That remodeling, necessitated by growth, doubled the seating capacity from roughly 80 to 160.
Belting out hymns such as “How Great Is Our God” and “Here I Am to Worship” was Willie Marsalis — an aspiring minister who was just 13 years old when the Category 5 storm struck his hometown.
“When you’re going through the storm, you don’t really get to see the vision of what God has in store,” said Willie, now 27 and preparing to attend seminary. “But, of course, Katrina brought this amazing work in the community.”
From that calamity, though, the Marsalises emerged with a strong-willed determination to share Jesus in their devastated community.
Charles and Angela’s two youngest sons — who were just teens when Katrina hit — have become integral to the ministry.
August Marsalis, 29, works secular jobs in software development and photography. Still, he finds time to mentor the Hollygrove youth group and lead worship with Willie.
August, who was 15 at the time of the hurricane, said he tries not to focus on the negatives of Katrina, even though many of his friends fled New Orleans and never returned.
“A lot of times when we see the kids, we see ourselves — our former selves,” he said of the children served by the Hollygrove church. “I don’t ever see it as a struggle, even after losing Greg.
“If anything, it just invigorates me more to make sure that throughout their lives, they know that we’re here and that we love them.”
Willie Marsalis finished his bachelor’s degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism administration at the University of New Orleans only to determine that God has a different plan for him: full-time ministry.
“I was like, ‘I could go into my career, but I would have to abandon the kids,’” Willie said of the Hollygrove youth group. “There’s about 15-plus youth, and it’s still growing, so it’s a blessing. I just need to get as many kids as I can into the house of the Lord.”
Every step of Hollygrove’s journey, God has made his grace and mercy evident, Willie said.
“His hand is over Hollygrove,” he said. “He’s using us however he wants, and we’re willing.”
Through it all, the Marsalis family has experienced highs (such as the national TV feature filmed by Morgan Freeman) and lows (including the 2017 neighborhood shooting death of 19-year-old member Gregory Hawkins).
“There’s so much darkness out here,” Angela said. “So whatever light we can bring, that’s my goal. … Satan is just — sometimes, I just think that he’s too busy. Sometimes, I feel like he’s winning, and I’ve just got to pray that much harder and serve that much harder.
“So it’s a war,” she added. “But we’re going to stay on the Lord’s side and let him use us.”
More than 13 years after Katrina, Charles said he remains committed to fulfilling God’s will in his life: “Every morning when I get up, I say, ‘Lord, what are we doing now? What do you got for me today?’”
“Lord, what are we doing now? What do you got for me today?”
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