New Orleans is not on Pope Francis’s itinerary this week when he makes his first official trip to the United States. But the 266th pontiff has excited a lot of New Orleanians with his brand of social justice, and some are even making the trip out East to see him.
In his back office at St. Peter Claver Church in the 7th Ward, Deacon Allen Stevens is smiling at his newest acquisition. It’s a life-size cardboard cutout of Pope Francis. “Well he’s no doubt in my mind a very charismatic leader. His message speaks volumes.”
Stevens is one of many New Orleans Catholics heading to Philadelphia at the end of the week to see the Pope. He says since Francis took over in 2013, there’s been a different energy. “He’s putting his faith into action," Stevens says. "He is in the public face, he is in the street corners, he is in the prison systems — that is the unique difference, he is encountering the people.”
Stevens and his congregation are black. And he says Francis’s focus on issues like income inequality, race and incarceration have resonated with his parishioners on a deep level. “I’ve asked those who attend a session, 'How many of you have been affected by mass incarceration?' It was almost unanimous.”
Michele Bergeron is a pastoral associate at St. Gabriel the Archangel parish, a predominantly black church in Gentilly. She’s used Pope Francis to repair some negative post-Katrina perceptions her congregation has about Latinos migrants. “First thing you always hear is, 'Those people are coming and they’re coming to take my job.'”
Pope Francis has pushed religious communities around the world to shelter and support migrants seeking refuge from conflict and violence, and extreme poverty. Bergeron says she’s used his message to educate her church. “What it means, what people go through who are immigrants and to help them understand that whole issue in a new light.“
29-year-old Mid-City resident Ilda Sarmiento is one of those immigrants who came to New Orleans after Katrina for work. Originally from Honduras, she’s a mother of two, and a house cleaner. Sarmiento is also heading to see the Pope, although she’s taking a bit of a different route.
She's part of an immigrant rights coalition, We Belong Together. They organized 100 female participants — many of whom, including Ilda, are undocumented — to walk to the northeast from Louisiana to see the Pope, staying in churches and private homes along the way.
Sarmiento says she and her fellow walkers know the Pope is on their side. They want him to help steer the immigration debate in the US away from politics and towards human rights.
On a recent Sunday morning Mary Queen of Vietnam church in New Orleans East is packed. The crowd prays and sings hymns in their native Vietnamese. Parishioner Vien Tran says there is a reason mass is more crowded these days: “Pope Francis.”
Vien says it’s due to Pope Francis’s comments on gay congregants; he famously said, “Who am I to judge.” And also his encouraging divorced Catholics to return. “People who walked away from the church, now they come back.”
The 63-year-old Vien came to the US in 1980 from his native Vietnam. Most who made that journey are Catholic. He saw Pope John Paul II's visit to New Orleans in 1987. Vien won’t make the trek out east to see Francis, but says some of his friends are. “Vietnamese people love him because he’s open," Vien says.
Pope Francis’s visit to the United States will take him to the White House, the United Nations and the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. He heads back to Rome on Sunday night.