Rev. John Raphael challenged all to reflect love of God, improve city

The Rev. John C. Raphael Jr., a Central City clergyman who for years called on New Orleanians to shake off their public apathy over the city’s appalling murder rate, died of cancer Tuesday morning at his home in Harvey, his family said. He was 60.

A burly former police officer who turned to the gospel full time, Raphael spent 25 years in the pulpit of New Hope Baptist Church in Central City.

During those years he launched a series of public anti-violence campaigns with rallies and billboards. On a smaller scale, he quietly spoke the same message talking to people during regular evening strolls around his church’s beleaguered neighborhood.

It was Raphael who led the effort in 1994 to plaster the city with “Thou Shalt Not Kill” signs and who, at the end of 2008, lived outdoors for three days and nights at the busy intersection of South Claiborne Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard in a public fast against violence.

In 2009, he and other black pastors organized a “Yes We Care Rally,” hoping to sensitize the black community to the shooting epidemic on the city’s streets.

In January of 2007, at a moment when murder seemed out of control and thousands of angry New Orleanians marched on City Hall, it was Raphael who channeled their frustration as the main speaker. He vowed that a city that had not drowned during Katrina would not drown in blood, either.

He was known in many quarters as one of the city’s most visible prophets railing against crime.

But that missed his larger point, he said.

What grieved him most, he said, was that black and white New Orleanians numbed themselves to street violence. He charged that the public too often wrote off killers and victims alike, refusing to see their humanity or recognizing their deaths as losses that wounded the whole community.

His first goal, he said, was “to prick the conscience” to awaken a public sense of moral outrage at the cheapness of life on the streets.

Beyond that, he wanted to rescue young people from crime — “the life” as he called it: often the short, violent journey from addict, to dealer, to killer, to homicide victim.

“I don’t want to be perceived as crime fighter,” he said in a 2007 interview. “I’m not looking to get the criminals out of the community. I’m looking to get the criminals out of the criminals.”

Raphael believed that the church had a key role to play in that effort. “The church can do something not City Hall, not the police can do,” he said. “The church can do something just because it loves you. That’s what makes the church so powerful.”

Raphael came to the pulpit after 15 years as a New Orleans policeman — the son of a policeman and grandson of a preacher.

Colleagues on the force said he was a no-nonsense officer who spurned foolishness, but his greater love was shepherding young people and crime victims in crisis.

For much of his time at New Hope, Rev. Raphael made frequent trips to Ghana, where he and his congregation helped build a hospital and school, the Jones College of Education, in the community of Offinso.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Tuesday he “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.”

In his public life “Pastor Raphael was consistent and responsible in challenging us all to do our part to reflect the love of God and improve our city,” Landrieu said.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, called Raphael “a truly special man who dedicated his life to improving his community. ... While he did not live to see his dream of a city without violence realized, his efforts brought us closer to that dream. His impact will continue to be felt and he will be deeply missed by all of us who share his goal of a peaceful community.”

As news of his death circulated Tuesday, friends and church members dropped by the Central City church to touch base and console each other. Although Raphael’s decline was relatively rapid — he was diagnosed only about six months ago, said his wife, Catherine — the church had been keeping a prayer vigil over his final weeks at home.

In his prime, Raphael was imposing, at 6 feet 5 inches and 260 pounds. In his baseball cap that proclaimed “Enough!” he was always the biggest man in a crowd.

Shannon Hewlett, a deacon for 23 years at New Hope, said Raphael shouldered all the concerns of his congregation, whether financial, personal or spiritual.

During Hurricane Katrina, the Rev. Raphael declined to evacuate, as many other clergy of all faiths did.

Rather, he opened the church as a shelter for those too old or poor to evacuate. They rode out the storm together. As the city flooded in Katrina’s aftermath, Raphael organized a private caravan that led the congregation to Lake Charles, Hewlett said.

“He was like a father to me,” Hewlett said. “He took on so much to himself, I used to wonder, who does he cry to?”

Survivors include his wife, Catherine Raphael; a son, John C. Raphael III, and a stepson, Therron Glover, both of New Orleans; a brother, Benjamin Raphael, of New Orleans; sisters Aurora Carter, Keely Bowen and Janna Raphael, all of New Orleans; Sharon Cole, of Sterling, Va., and Miriam Montgomery, of Montgomery, Ala.; and a grandchild.

Visitation will be Tuesday at 3 p.m. at the church, 1807 LaSalle St., followed by a worship service at 7 p.m.

The funeral will be at 9 a.m. July 3 at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, followed by internment at Providence Memorial Park.

Heritage Funeral Directors is in charge of arrangements.