DONALDSONVILLE — In a day of unity and healing, Donaldsonville leaders, residents and those from nearby communities gathered at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Saturday morning to pray and sing hymns before heading out to pick up trash from the city’s roadsides.
City councilman and Emmanuel Baptist pastor Charles Brown led religious leaders, politicians and a congregation of more than 100 with a message of hope for a town struck by recent violence.
It had been five days since Chad Nichols, of Donaldsonville, and Benny Booker, of Prairieville, were shot and killed in Nichols’ front yard. In the week before that, a sheriff’s deputy and a teenager were wounded but survived in separate shootings.
The four shootings in the space of two weeks marked a string of violence that was uncharacteristic for the small town. The prayer rally and cleanup were an effort by city leaders and residents to promote and encourage civic pride.
Camille Christy, a Donaldsonville High School junior and Air Force junior ROTC member, spent the morning directing traffic and picking up discarded soda cans on Vatican Street. He was working within view of the yard where the shootings occurred and described what he was seeing as an eye-opener.
“It puts me in the mindset that this doesn’t just happen to everybody else. It can touch home,” Christy said.
But the city’s leaders emphasized that no matter how much strain recent crimes put on the community, unity and faith will keep the city strong.
“When you come together in prayer, you learn to, number one, love God, and number two, love yourself,” said Donaldsonville mayor Leroy Sullivan. “The more love that we can bring into the community, we’ll see more of a change.”
In Donaldsonville, where one city councilman is a church pastor and the mayor and two other councilmen serve as ministers, religion and community are hard to separate.
So when Capt. Rick Bergeron, of the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office, gave his address to the church assembly, he spoke spiritually, emotion cracking his voice.
“I want the devil to know,” Bergeron said, “My heart is heavy, but it’s not broken.”
Bergeron, who has lived in Donaldsonville his entire life, said it has always been a good, safe city. He remembered taking family vacations to Grand Isle as a child and leaving the door to the family home unlocked while they were away.
Bergeron calls himself a “product of Donaldsonville,” and wasn’t alone in showing his pride in his city. School Board member Robyn Delaney took to the church podium wearing a T-shirt bearing the same slogan.
Missy Jandura, executive director of the Donaldsonville Downtown Development District, moved to Donaldsonville from Illinois at 12 years old and said her decision to stay shows the great quality of life the city offers residents.
“I’m not a product of Donaldsonville and I love it,” Jandura said. “I’m not a product of a Ascension Parish; I love it.”
Despite the pride community members take in their city, Brown worries the recent violence has given outsiders a negative view of Donaldsonville. He said he wants to help return its reputation to its quieter, more peaceful past.
Saturday’s events, Brown said, were all about changing the way Donaldsonville is perceived.
“We’ve seen stuff in the media that’s truly not Donaldsonville,” he said. “So before we stash the trash, let’s clean our image up.”
Jandura struck the same note as Brown, encouraging volunteers to spread a positive image of the city by taking photos of the garbage clean-up and spreading them on social media with Donaldsonville-related hashtags.
For Christy, the shootings were a call to action, no matter what outsiders think of the city.
“I thought, ‘Let me see what I can do better as a process to better this community,’” he said, gesturing at the ditch running alongside Vatican Street. “This is a place to start.”