On June 2, 2018, St Aloysius sponsored an event in the Valley Park area, which was affectionately named NeighborFest. The event was the result of a shared desire by St Aloysius Parish and the Valley Park area to further interact with one another and learn more about the gifts of each community. Members of St. Aloysius Parish met with Mrs. Cynthia Owens-Green initially and learned of the history of Owens Grocery and Market on Balis Drive, which has been blessing the Valley Park community since 1938.
The opportunity for recognizing the loving service that The Owens-Green family has provided to the Valley Park community through Owens Grocery for the past 80 years became simultaneously the wonderful focal point for St Aloysius and the Valley Park community to engage and celebrate together.
In planning and preparing for NeighborFest, St Aloysius and the Valley Park community collaborated with the District Attorney’s Office, EBR Sheriff’s Office, Baton Rouge Police Department, EBR Fire Department, Owen’s Grocery, House of God Ministries, New Gideon Baptist Church, and New Morning Star Baptist Church. In addition, local businesses and organizations, and people such as Albertsons, Coca-Cola, Walmart, Diocese of Baton Rouge Racial Harmony Commission and Whitney Vann from Weekends with Whitney all showed their support by donation and/or participation.
In the beaming sun on Balis Drive, the event was ‘kicked off’ by a beautiful and soulful rendition of the national anthem performed by Eilene Rockette from House of God Ministries, followed by our own Fr. Randy, the master of ceremonies, who led the gathering with a beautiful prayer of unity and
thanksgiving. Next, Ariel Green graced the gathered crowd with a moving and heart-felt liturgical dance. Erica Green King followed this beautiful movement with a soul-stirring hymn of praise.
After this sharing of gifts, Rowdy Gaudet from the Mayor/President’s Office and Metro Council member, Barbara Freiburg, read to the gathered people a commendation by Mayor Sharon Weston-Broome for the 80 years of loving service that the Owens-Green family has provided to the Valley Park community through and beyond Owens Grocery. Prior to the reading of the commendation, Councilmember Freiburg commented that this kind of community event is something that should be happening every weekend in some neighborhood in our town.
Ms. Cynthia Green’s face shone with humble gratitude as she listened to the commendation that traced the history of her family life-giving service through feeding families, caring for the homeless, praying, fellowship, and simply listening when someone needed an ear. The commendation also highlighted the historical collaboration of service between the Owens-Green family and St. Aloysius Parish in services such as providing Thanksgiving baskets, feeding families and the elderly, and providing shelter when needed.
The spirit of coming together in celebration of both unity and service was palpable in the noon air of the day when, after receiving a plaque of recognition from Fr. Randy, Mrs. Green shared humbly and eloquently how service is simply what God wants from all of us, i.e., to put God first. With a few brief
words, as she looked out upon the diverse crowd gathered in front of her, she graciously acknowledged unity by saying “this just shows that we can all get along.” As the ceremony concluded with Pastor Brandon Collins (New Morning Star Baptist Church) giving the blessing, the hungry crowd moved across the street to the tree-shaded lot where the festivities began.
One could see in the faces of the hundreds that were in attendance the same sense of service, celebration and yearning to get to know each other which the ceremony had just affirmed. The gathered enjoyed hamburgers and hot dogs cooked by the Knights of Columbus and the numerous
cookies baked by St. Aloysius parishioners.
St. Vincent de Paul ministry handed out children’s books, prayer cards and friendship bracelets, while St. Aloysius parishioners, including youth, did face painting and assisted with games that were provided by BREC on the Geaux.
As the steady stream of people moved into the festival space, they were treated to music DJed by EBR Sheriff officers, who, in the spirit of the gathering, gladly joined in the dancing themselves. Several children were wide-eyed with joy as they had the opportunity of both sounding the horn on the EBR
Parish Fire Department’s fire truck as well as seeing and petting the Baton Rouge Police Officers’ remarkable horses.
Many listened to storytelling from a Valley Park neighbor, Joanna Ballard, as well as a book read aloud entitled CALL ME HERO, written by St Aloysius parishioner, Claire Bateman. Stuffed animal puppies, from a character in the book were donated by Claire and given out to children. In addition, the
generous donation of bikes by Front Yard bikes afforded two bike-give-away drawings, giving away ten bikes, which made many children very happy!
There was an overall ambiance of gratitude, service and connection as the diverse group of people gathered leaned into each other’s lives through the food, music, gifts, talents and sharing in the
Near the end of the day, one child asked a St. Aloysius parishioner when another event like this would be scheduled. After asking this, the same child said, “I just hope we don’t have to wait another 80 years.”
Several people commented on that same spirit of yearning for ongoing interaction and community experienced during the event: Kristy Roubique, social responsibility commission member, recalls how the spirit of inclusivity and
community seemed pre-ordained for the event, when she heard Paul Coreil read aloud to the volunteers setting up for the event Pope Francis’ intention for the month of June “that social networks may work towards that inclusiveness which respects others for their differences.” Kristy was struck by how the experience of NeighborFest affirmed that so many more blessings seem to be received than given when we interact with each other in this way. Cathy St. Pierre, social responsibility commission member, commented that this type of event so clearly reveals that we are all neighbors and children of God even though we come from different religious, economic and cultural backgrounds.
Kim Hardman, St Vincent De Paul volunteer, expressed, ”NeighborFest was without doubt the work of the Holy Spirit. A small seed that was planted blossomed into a joyous day filled with love as we all came together as one and got to know our neighbors…a wonderful experience worth repeating until the
end of ages.”
The event was more than simply a great event celebrating 80 years of service by a dedicated family. It was indeed a celebration of what has occurred, what is occurring, and what can continue to occur in St. Aloysius, Valley Park, Baton Rouge, and indeed all communities in our nation and in our world: food, fun, service, inclusivity, diversity, and community. NeighborFest is a celebration that reminds us of where we are heading and what true service looks like - joyful, hopeful, responsible and communal.
When Mrs. Green told us all, “I hope this store (Owens Grocery) can last another 80 years,” she reminded us of how feeding each other both physically and spiritually is an ongoing process. All those who participated in NeighborFest seem to have experienced precisely that same conviction, which was captured within the Mayor/President’s Commendation quoting the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, “For I was hungry, and you fed me…”