More than 600 folks turned out Saturday for the 16th Annual Community Block Party hosted by Apostle Vanessa Ward and her husband Keith Ward. As usual this multi-generational celebration of community in a northeast Omaha neighborhood once known as Death Valley went off without any trouble.
During this street festival-reunion-revival Apostle, cordless mic in hand, is everywhere preaching her grassroots doctrine of community togetherness. It's praise and worship in the guise of kickin' it.
"Do you feel it?" Apostle likes to say."C'mon, community, let's celebrate, let's do it..." she implores the crowd.
"Let's celebrate," rejoins her daughter Va'Chona Graves, aka the Holy Ghost Girl, who emcees from a makeshift DJ booth under a tent. The music ranges from hip hop to contemporary gospel to old school R&B and soul. At various points a dance line forms and little girls to adult women move in unison with the beat.
The laid-back event is held on the very block that Apostle and her husband live on. It's a poor, working class area dotted by boarded up houses and vacant lots. Their home and yard serve as the hub for the party, whose activities stretch up and down the long block.
That block, from Fowler to Grand Ave., is part of a stretch of 38th St. starting at Ames Ave. that bears her name in recognition of the work she's done transforming the neighborhood. Her 2008 book Somebody Do Something tells the story. She's writing a new book about the evolution of her community building work and her vision for the future.
That vision is much bigger than the block party, which is just one expression of year-round efforts to keep the neighborhood clean and safe. It's a mission for this community matriarch, organizer, builder, evangelical activist minster. She pastors. mothers and advises her neighbors. She often picks up trash and cooks for them, too.
"I'm trying to teach by example. People respect you when they see that you're not leading from behind," she says.
She started two community gardens on nearby vacant lots. The Peace Garden sits atop a tall bank. It overlooks a curbside memorial to a drive-by shooting victim. A corner Hope Garden adjacent to her home is where she conducts Sunday morning services for her charismatic Afresh Anointing Church congregation. Boxed flower beds and a nativity scene adorn it. Her message there is consistent with her exhortations at the party.
"Alright community, you have to be ready to fight for what you believe in, you have to battle for what's right."
This faith warrior and her holy roller faith friends conduct a two-hour call and response service that draws dozens. People walking or driving by take it slow and quiet. Some end up joining the service. The amplified preaching, singing and music can be heard for blocks.
"The neighbors are coming in greater numbers," Apostle says. "People will wait to cut their grass till were done. The ice cream truck guy won't even ring his bell. These are things that have evolved – the respect."
That same respect and unity infuse the block party
"It just becomes this wonderful place," she says. "Everybody in the neighborhood contributes. They manicure the block, they make sure every lot is clean. The young people set up and take down tables and chairs. People donate food."
Many neighbors have been personally ministered to by her and that's given her serious street cred with 21-year-old Andre "Right" Boyd.
"I really appreciate everything she does for the youth. Most of us have been raised up by her. I've been coming to her for awhile and she helps me out. i have that relationship with her that I can go to her for things. She's like a mother, she's like a helper…She means a lot."
She's an admired figure.
"I think everybody sees her as a icon. She's definitely going to have a legend here," says Tina Knight. "Everybody knows who she is, everybody knows what she's about. She's highly respected."
During a recent neighborhood tour Apostle led she caught sight of some teen boys and, as is her habit, she chatted them up. After making intros one of the boys looked up at the street sign with her name on it and said, 'Ain't this your street?" "Well, that is my name up there, yes dear," she said. "But it's really our street."
Getting people to take ownership of the neighborhood has been key.
Nettie Houston says she's seen "big changes here," adding, "There's no problems, everybody trusts each other and we watch out for each other." She credits Apostle with making the difference in getting "the neighborhood working together."
Apostle says even little things like greeting people, picking up litter, cutting the grass, bringing homemade cookies to a new neighbor or decorating the street with balloons creates a sense of community.
"Keep Omaha Beautiful statistics show that when a neighborhood is clean crime is down. Are you feeling me? So what do you think happens when you take the time to decorate and serve food?"
The block party features plenty of decorations and food.
Balloon displays line both sides of the street, one in the shape of a cross. Young kids queue up for face painting, balloon animals and the bounce house. A portable basket attracts young fellas for spirited hoops minus the trash talking. Elders play dominos at a card table under shade trees. Grills fire the smoke for the pulled pork sandwiches and beans served at lunchtime.
The Marching Dragons drill team performs. A talent showcase gives kids and adults alike their neighborhood American Idol moments.
There's no cursing, no drama. It all flows free and easy in the warm communal embrace of a groovy kind of love.
Bound up in this neighborhood's story is her own saga of heeding the call to minister to an area "under siege" from open air dope dealers, gang members and drive-by shootings. A young man, Columbus Brown, was shot and killed in front of Apostle's home. The mother of four feared for her own family's safety.
A gang leader and his crew hung out up the street. "Their presence was very intimidating," she says. "Corner boys on every corner sold drugs and you had to come through them like a gauntlet to get to your own home. They'd come right up to you and say, 'You want some of this?' When friends used to drive me home from church they'd say, 'Hey, pastor, you sure enough live in the ghetto.'"
Raucous music blared from car speakers. Unkept abandoned rental properties and vacant lots became breeding grounds for negative activities. Then and now the area includes young single mothers and retirees struggling to get by. Some residents are unemployed or underemployed, lacking education or skills to move up. It's a microcosm of the woes that beset segments of northeast Omaha.
Apostle's seen it over and over and it stands in stark contrast to when she came up there a half-century ago.
"In these very impoverished, transitional situations people come and go. There's a high risk element of crime, isolation and desperation. People are not interested in knowing each other. It's very unfriendly.
"When I was a little girl I came up in community. My mom would have talent shows and leaf raking parties in the backyard. She was one of the main organizers of block parties. I saw something that it did – it brought people out, it brought people together and it just forced community. When I grew older and moved into neighborhood after neighborhood that shared that heaviness, that separation I was never satisfied with it, although I found out you become very complacent to what you're used to."
Like her neighbors, she was conditioned by an urban code that says to look the other way and keep silent.
"I had been raised up with the main rules of living in the inner city – don't get involved, mind your own business and don't snitch."
As things got worse she took her first action to address the chaos.
"I broke the rule that governs these neighborhoods and I called the police. That was big for me."
But she wasn't yet ready to take the next step.
"I was about to go out and give the facts of what I saw, what I heard but my husband wasn't having it. We weren't on the same page at that time for me to take a step that bold. So I backed down..."
A tragedy moved her farther down the path.
"When the young man was murdered in front of my house it just fired me on my journey. I just knew I was going to have to do something. But I didn't know what."
She faced an "inner struggle" living in that predatory environment.
"You become hard-hearted. You become angry. After a while you're hating and hate can never change anything. I hated the gang members. I hated the loud noise. I hated the police helicopter hovering over me. I had become a victim of my own circumstances. The Lord began to show me how cold and callous I had become. Transformation starts inside yourself, so I had to go through a whole spiritual cleansing and healing because I was so hurt."
That's when the street became her church and its residents her flock as she intentionally went about softening hearts and reviving the community she knew growing up.
The memory of block parties from her childhood inspired her to recreate those times of "camaraderie and hope." She'd come full circle.
The first block party she threw in 1995 marked the start of her neighborhood ministry. But to close off a street you must get everyone on the block to agree. That meant getting the gang leader's OK. Before she could approach him she needed her husband's approval.
"My husband was scared for my life."
Keith Ward Sr. says while Vanessa went to talk to the gang's top dog "I sat on the porch with my shotgun."
Apostle recalls her anxious approach to the young man and his homies who ruled The Hood with fear.
"I said to him, 'You know what guys, we've got a cloud of gloom hanging over us. Your homeboy's dead. Everything is heavy. How about let's have us a block party. We'll do some dancing in the street and just move this heaviness.' It got real silent and I waited and finally the answer came: 'Cool.' Then I said, 'Three rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.' I waited again for his answer: 'That's fine.' I was shaking all the way home i was so nervous."
Then she went about making it happen.
"I called on different churches and friends. They gave what they could."
From the start, the family friendly event has held a nostalgic feel.
"All I could see was old-fashioned fun. Hula hoops, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, relays, three-legged races, hopscotch, paper airplanes balloons. Kids running and playing. All the things that engage us."
About 75 folks attended that first year. The no drugs, no alcohol, no violence mandate was abided by then and has been ever since.
She says, "It's been made clear that is the standard." "I know that everything was right because the gang leader came over and said, 'What do we owe you for this?' I told him nothing and he said, "Thank you for doing this for us.' That took me some years to process. When does a person own something and believe it's for him?"
As neighbors took ownership of the party the numbers grew. She estimates as many as 600 to 700 people have attended in peak years.
Apostle believes that buy-in speaks to how much people crave community.
"That's what I found out it is. That's why they come every year. That's why nobody wants to leave. That's why it's been 16 times now and we've never had a violent outburst, not even a fight. We've never had to call the police to bring peace. How do you do that with that many people in the middle of a neighborhood that was called Death Valley if it's not something we all hunger for and really want.
"What I see is that people want to get together in a safe environment, they want to connect in love, they yearn for that. That's what it's come to be. It's kind of like a slice of heaven."
When Apostle's son, Keith Ward Jr., sees young adults at the party he's reminded they were small children when his mother began this work. Many are now parents themselves and their babies are the next in line for this each one to teach one modeling.
"There isn't hardly anyone here that hasn't been touched by her or advised by her or grown up by her or looked out by her or prayed by her. Hopefully they'll know there's a better way for the future," he says. "If there's nobody out here like my mother to guide 'em or show 'em how we can come together as a community or what it is to be a community then we're lost."
He's proud of her.
"It takes a special type of person to pull this off. It takes a lot of patience, it take a lot of love. She sees everything beautifully. She sees something better in you that you might not even see yourself."
As the event grew and the area's criminal activities subsided, her work there drew attention. Elected officials and community leaders have attended to sing her praises and to encourage neighbors to continue building community. Mayor Jean Stothert made an appearance on Saturday. Media covered the party.
Today, when you walk the block the tranquil setting is a far cry from what it used to be. Apostle can hardly believe the change herself.
"I can walk out here at 11 o'clock at night barefoot and go all the way up to the corner with no risk at all. Sometimes when I go out of my house at night I don't want to slam my door because i don't want to disturb the peace. This was not the case even 10 years ago. We have arrived and everybody knows it. "
Much of her best work there happened after she and her husband moved away for two years and then moved back.
"My husband's health was failing. He had kidney failure. We were going through a time where we were just spiraling down. We got evicted from our house and ended up moving to the suburbs."
But she still retained a presence on the block.
"I took time off only from living here because every Saturday I would come back to pray."
She didn't like what she found.
"It was like suspended animation. Houses were vacant, nothing was moving forward. I set up a microphone at the top of the hill and prayed. I reminded the neighbors of where we came from and what we've been through. I'd say, 'C'mon, we can do this, let's keep showing love.' Then I would walk and pray up and down the block, keeping the pot stirred so to speak. I had to leave my comfort zone and think of strategic ways to approach people. That took a lot of work."
Then she decided she needed to move back to The Hood. That took some convincing of Keith, who didn't like the idea of leaving the comfortable burbs for "the trouble land." When she told him her work there wasn't done he relented. Once they returned to 38th she wasn't sure she'd do the block party that first year back but neighbors kept asking when she was having it. So she held it. She's faced doubts about doing it since then, too. It's a major undertaking.
"It's hard work," says Apostle, who dips into her own pocket to cover what donations don't. "Every year I feel like I don't know why I do this but I've found out this thing has become bigger than me."
Despite the stability she's brought to the neighborhood challenges persist. Unsavory persons and activities try slipping back in. But she sees more neighbors being vigilant.
"Every now and then the element still comes back and tests," she says. "At one time I thought it was just up to me. There's other people involved now that want to protect and hold onto it. I get so happy when someone else steps up to call the police. Yeah, it's more than me. That's the whole point."
She feels there's no reason what's being done there can't be replicated.
"Can you imagine a block party here, a block party there, all promoting that love and connectedness? Where could the negative element run? It would only have to succumb."
While she believes outside individuals and agencies have a role to play in reviving North O she says change must come from within.
"I do believe there are bridges that need to be laid but I do not believe you can bring change from the outside. You cannot come into my neighborhood and bring about change and correction if you're not part of it. When you live out west and you come down here to preach you're not connected. What do you know about it and where have you earned the people's trust? I had to earn their trust."
She's sure she's where she needs to be and she knows what she wants to do next there.
"I think this area is in dire need of a church and a community development center."
When she looks at the empty lots around her she sees opportunities to offer programs that help people get out of poverty and off welfare.
"On all these empty lots we should be able to have something to help us connect or bridge to the various agencies we have in North Omaha. We need to get people built up and ready to take advantage of the wonderful things we have. We've got to give people the ability to dream. You've got to get people to see beyond their circumstances."
She realizes she may not live to see all her dreams fulfilled but she's hopeful her children and others will see them through.
"I won't always live here but I'm raising it to be able to go on beyond me."
Her best takeaway from the 2013 block party is that the neighborhood has taken it on as their own. "They're doing it now. If I wasn't to do another one, it would live on. They've grown into it. It's so rewarding."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.