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Candles in the Wind

Remembering Joseph Massenburg

The father of the murdered youth speaks slowly into the phone.

It is the same voice of the church pastor pictured on Chicago area television who exhorts large crowds to rise above their daily pains and burdens into a Christian chorus of hope, faith and song. The tone is rich, his vocabulary cultured.
Today, however, Pastor Andre Massenburg is more subdued than the commanding Baptist messenger seen on church videos and television news clips. He is quietly answering a reporter’s questions about his slain son, Joseph Massenburg, 18.

One of the more than 1,500 AmeriCorps service volunteers assigned to New Orleans, young “Joe” died here April 1, a few weeks after arriving to live and work in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. He was shot to death at approximately 11 p.m. as he walked alone near the corner of Birch and Eagle streets, in a gritty Uptown neighborhood, according to police.

The murder of the young volunteer from the predominantly black middle-class Chicago suburb of Matteson, Ill., struck a chord in New Orleans, a city long numbed by chronic violence. A racially mixed crowd of 200 New Orleanians participated in a solemn candlelight march to the bleak Carrollton neighborhood where he died. Mayor Mitch Landrieu recognized Joseph’s service in an address praising the tens of thousands of volunteers who have traveled to New Orleans to help the city rebuild since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Crimestoppers posted a $5,000 reward.
One month later, police still had not announced any breaks in the case.

The pastor and his wife Sharon Massenburg – Joseph’s mother – are planning to travel to New Orleans for a public memorial service. He will be remembered as the first AmeriCorps worker killed in the 20-year history of the national service organization – and as a son.

Pastor Massenburg’s voice, so clear and commanding in church, fills with grief on the phone. He describes Joseph’s brief life, retracing his son’s steps as if trying to understand how the bright promise of youth can meet a sudden, tragic end on a dark street corner. “He was the youngest of four children; two brothers and a sister,” the pastor says. “He was healthy. He wrestled in high school. His two brothers were on the wrestling team ...”

The pastor pauses, chuckles and continues. “Aside from chasing girls, he liked sports. He was going to do a year in AmeriCorps then go into the Army.”

Joseph arrived in New Orleans with his AmeriCorps team in mid-March. “He liked it. He didn’t have any complaints,” his father says of New Orleans. Massenberg and his team were dispatched to Green Light New Orleans, a nonprofit group that promotes energy efficiency in low-income housing. He was part of a team of a dozen or so volunteers assigned to distribute energy-efficient light bulbs to the poor and elderly in the Carrollton area Uptown. “They were ready for action,” the pastor says.

Massenburg called home often, his father said. He never told his parents about the dangerous sections of New Orleans where he so briefly lived and worked – then died.

 “When I found out how bad the area was – I couldn’t believe it,” the pastor says.  Had he known, the father says, he would have taken no more drastic action than to urge his son to be more cautious and “more aware of his surroundings.”
The Massenburgs are pastors, after all.

Joseph, like his parents, had worked as a church volunteer to the poor and less fortunate in the tough streets of Chicago. Like his mother and father, he was volunteering to serve society’s disadvantaged – only in New Orleans.

Andreas “Andi” Hoffman, the Swiss-born founder of Green Light, remembers Joseph Massenburg as a member of an AmeriCorps team that arrived in mid-March. They began a four-to-six week stint passing out energy-efficient light bulbs to residents of low-income neighborhoods.

During one routine meeting at Green Light, he recalls Massenburg expressing concern for a woman living in a large house. “She could only afford six light bulbs; that concerned him,” Hoffman says, noting a typical residence can use 18 to 24 bulbs.

Regulations required that volunteers provide only free energy efficient light bulbs in exchange for replacing an equal number of the standard issue. “He could only give her six energy efficient light bulbs,” Hoffman said. Joseph resolved his dilemma, Hoffman recalls: “He got her more light bulbs.”

Pastor Massenburg heard the story. “He had a heart for people, and that is one of the reasons why he was there,” the pastor said. “He wasn’t perfect. He was no angel. He balanced his life.” He would listen to gospel music and rap artists. Like many youths today he sported tattoos.

 “He was good in heart,” his father says. “He was growing up. He was traveling. You are happy to be away from home when you’re young. He loved life – Joseph loved life. He was happy; he was happy.”

One week after Joseph’s murder, some 200 people gathered one block off South Carrollton Avenue – behind the Willow Street Streetcar Barn.

The green hangar was built in 1893 to house and maintain the city’s historic trolleys, according to a self-guided tour map published by the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Night-shift workers tending the 35 streetcars at the barn paused to watch.

Knots of college students, middle-aged homeowners, and activists rallied for a solidarity march to protest the prevalence of violent crime in general and the murder of AmeriCorps volunteer Joseph Massenburg in particular.

Billed as the “Community March Against Violence,” the silent candlelight vigil and march would “not be used as a forum for discussion, interviews or speeches,” according to a notice for the event.  

The protestors chatted quietly before the procession began, their hands cupped around flickering candles in the April night breeze. A streetcar swung off Carrollton Avenue and eased toward the barn. The crowd stepped off the tracks to let it pass. “Does anybody need a candle?” a young man said, holding a box in the air.

Shortly after 8 p.m., the march began to take shape. The crowd formed a circle around Andreas Hoffman, an organizer of the march. “I want to make sure we all walk in silence,” he said.  “Please have your thoughts and prayers with the family. Please have your thoughts and prayers with everyone else in the city, and please be considerate of the people in the neighborhood.”

Escorted by three police cars, the marchers walked silently toward the neighborhood corner where Joseph Massenburg died from multiple gunshot wounds.

In Chicago, Pastor Massenburg said organizers of the vigil called the slain volunteer’s family before invoking his name at the march.

 “They asked for our blessing; we gave it,” Pastor Massenburg recalls by phone from Chicago. “We were honored that people who didn’t know our son would march for him like that. It meant a lot to us as parents. It made us feel proud that they would grieve with us. They were hurting with us. They were outraged with us. They became one with us; it made us feel good.”

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