Willie Baxter used to avoid the police, he said, but for about an hour on Saturday he sat next to an Ascension Parish deputy as they ate plates of jambalaya and enjoyed friendly fellowship.

Sitting next to Baxter, at a long row of tables set up in the front parking lot of Divine Grace Temple, was Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office Staff Sgt. Richard Boe. About a dozen local law enforcement officers and nearly 100 Temple members and community residents were attending the first — but probably not the last -— Police Appreciation Day sponsored by the Temple’s Men’s Fellowship group.

“There was a time I wouldn’t be near a police officer unless I was handcuffed, but I gave my life to Christ and all that changed for me,” Baxter said. “This (event) is important because we need communication between the authorities and the community.”

Boe agreed. “This keeps us in touch with the community. A lot of times all you have to do is ask to find out what the problem is,” he said. “The community supports us hands down, second to none.”

Apostle Alice S. Martin, pastor of the 300 member Divine Grace Temple, located at 728 E. La. 30, said she had been burdened to host an event like this for awhile, especially in light of the clashes across America between some African-American communities and their police departments.

“I felt in my spirit that the Lord wanted to bring the policemen and the church together as one,” Martin said. “We’ve got to keep order in the church and the police need to keep order out in the world so we can have order and God can move.”

“You can find good people and bad people everywhere you go, but we feel there are more good ones (police) than bad ones,” Martin said. “You know, prejudice is in everybody, in black and white.”

Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux agreed with Martin and said he appreciated the church for hosting the event and Free at Last Prison Ministries for providing the jambalaya.

“Today in this country people are looking down on law enforcement, and there are some terrible and tragic things that have happened,” Arceneaux said. “We’re better to get it started, the friendship, here at a church. I’m a firm believer that without God you have nothing.”

John Bayer and his wife, Andi, lead Free at Last Prison Ministries, a nondenominational group that visits inmates in local, state and federal prisons. He and a crew of volunteers cooked enough jambalaya to feed about 300 people, he said.

“I feel it is important to do this as Christians because a lot of the negative feelings toward police officers have been coming from the black community, and what better way to bring reconciliation to the community than to have a black church host a law enforcement appreciation day,” Bayer said.

As each officer rolled into the church’s parking lot, many of the church’s men left their seats at the tables to greet them.

Captain Joey Mayeaux, head of the APSO’s East Patrol, said he appreciated the welcoming handshakes.

“Coming together with the community is the most important thing we can do,” Mayeaux said. “To be able to come and break bread with them — with anyone — is great team building.

“We haven’t seen it here, but you see it across the country where they don’t realize that police are human,” Mayeaux said. “We’re lucky we don’t have that problem in Ascension Parish or in Louisiana. We work with our community and we want them to come to us, and they do.”

Maurice “Mo Man” Scott is a Gonzales Fire Department first responder and a member of the Respectable Gentlemen’s Social Club, a men’s group that mentors young men and buys Christmas gifts for underserved children.

“You can’t judge one officer by what the next officer’s mistake is,” Scott said. “We in the black community are not saying that. We are doing this to show them we appreciate them and appreciate what they do.”

By the end of the day, the jambalaya pot was empty, many officers had been fed and more than a dozen who couldn’t attend because they were busy were delivered “to go” boxes by church volunteers, Smith said. “We want to do this again next year.”

Martin and Bayer both said they’d like to see many more churches host similar events.

“Just think how that could change America,” Bayer said.