“My grandfather had the reputation of feeding the world. I’ve followed in his footsteps.” – Rev. David Lauricella Jr.
A little more than a year ago, shortly after David Lauricella Jr. fully took hold of the reins as pastor of the tiny Harahan Christian Church on Hickory Avenue, one of the regulars in the morning coffee klatch at the nearby McDonald’s cracked, “Well, looks like the grandson also rises!”
“Mighty big shoes to fill!” came the quick retort.
When founding pastor Marion “Sugar” Lauricella went on to meet his maker in August 2010, his goateed grandson, David, who helped his own father run their foundation repair business, was the logical choice to step into the pulpit – and he was prepared.
The two men, grandfather and grandson, couldn’t have come to their callings from more different angles: Sugar Lauricella, with an Irish Channel delivery, frequent uproarious bursts of laughter and a few rough edges, got his start hustling and dealing less-than-legal card games around Jefferson Parish, while David Lauricella was a business management student at Loyola University and lived day and night for his first love – baseball – playing for the Wolfpack.
“It’s about helping others,” David Lauricella says as he sits in his grandfather’s chair in the matchbox-sized office in the little church. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what drove Paw Paw (Sugar Lauricella). The more he helped others, fed them, clothed them, the more he wanted to do. I could see the passion in his eyes for what he did. When the calling comes, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, you know it’s right.”
In an anteroom in the church, a mega-sized map of the world covers a wall. The map is pocked with a rainbow of pins showing the continents and countries and villages that are little more than a speck on the planet where life was sustained by a helping hand from Sugar Lauricella and his army of volunteers, many of whom he knew only as voices on the telephone.
“We sent 10,000 pounds of rice to this little village a year or so ago,” he’d say, pointing to a pin in central Africa. Then it was on to “… help them with a water well” in Central America. “Around 50,000 gallons of bottled water and 10 tons of canned foods went there in Mozambique.” Post-Hurricane Katrina, Sugar Lauricella was seemingly ubiquitous, hanging from the back of a truck handing out cups of ice cream to anybody he saw on the streets of his devastated Jefferson Parish one minute and “replacing powdered eggs that tasted like cardboard with the real McCoy to volunteer workers in St. Bernard the next minute.”
David Lauricella leans back in his chair, his head stopping inches from the back of the slanted wall of the church, just as his grandfather used to do.
“My grandfather used to tell me that people want to get involved,” the 29-year-old pastor says. “They want to be asked to help out. And most often they do. He got his turn-downs. But he never gave up. He’d be on the phone for hours and hours at a time, pulling together a donation of rice from this mill or corn from some place in Kansas. Then he’d have space on a truck donated, then onto a donated ship going to some place in Central America that had been devastated by an earthquake or a mudslide. He never was discouraged, he never lost faith.”
Lauricella’s church has no affiliation with any umbrella religious organization. “I guess we’d be closest to Bible-based Baptist,” he says matter-of-factly. “But, in truth, we’re non-denominational. And my motto is ‘Come as you are.’ No need for suits. I’m not here to beat anybody up. No fire and brimstone. I’m not going to try to make you feel bad about who you are. I give a message of hope.”
So from whence does this eternally springing hope originate? How does a one-time Loyola student who was training for a business career – but who readily admits his first and most passionate love was baseball – wind up feeding the world?
“No doubt about it,” David Lauricella says. “Baseball was my first love and my life – really. I devoted so much time and energy to it. It was all-consuming. I gave it my all. I never wanted to do anything halfway. And baseball? It was all I thought about at one point in my life. Well, there I was in church one day and my grandfather was preaching. I had done this many times before, all my life … sat there listening to him. But this day it was different. This day was like no other. I looked up and in a flash, I didn’t see Pastor Sugar Lauricella, my Paw Paw, in the pulpit. I saw myself. I was there, in front of the congregation preaching! Now, I had heard people talking about visions and the like. And for a long time that didn’t sit well with me. But then there I was. I was sitting in a pew in this church looking up and seeing myself preaching.
“About a week later,” David Lauricella continues, “Paw Paw and I were at a funeral. We were alone and had a few quiet moments and out of the blue he asked me, ‘Son, have you ever thought of one day pursuing the ministry?’ I told him what had happened. A little smile crossed his face and he said, ‘Son, don’t question it. Somebody is trying to tell you something.’ Well, I decided to get onboard. I was ordained. I decided from the beginning I was never going to be there to judge people. I was going to be there to follow in Paw Paw’s footsteps.”
Following in his grandfather’s footsteps or not, the Rev. David Lauricella Jr. says he pursued his ministry in the little church on Hickory Avenue with the same passion that drove him on the baseball diamond at Loyola University years earlier.
“It’s not easy,” he says. “It’s not like I go up on that pulpit and just hold them in the palm of my hand. I’m kind of shy to begin with. But in truth, I’ve gotten more comfortable up there as time passes. I just let loose and within the last six months, I started beginning to see things more clearly. I see that I am the minister who brings belief to people.”
Lauricella admits that he gets only 10, maybe 15 minutes of preaching time (“You go any longer than that and you put people to sleep … no matter what you’re talking about,” Sugar Lauricella used to say) and then Sunday services are over and it’ll be a week before he can give the congregation another message. He hopes that message burns within the hearts of the flock.
But again, the younger Lauricella could harken back to yet another lesson of his wise old mentor, Pastor Sugar Lauricella, who used to say, “Preach the gospel – and use words only if necessary,” a popular quote often attributed to St. Francis.
The Rev. David Lauricella again rolls back in the chair in the tiny office (“I still look at this as Paw Paw’s office … and I don’t feel comfortable sitting at his desk”) and, again, his head stops an inch from the wall, just as Sugar Lauricella had done many times since he took over the ministry in 1967 (and kept on laughing and working right up to the day of his death). A slight smile crosses the young pastor’s lips and he realizes, while the lineup card has changed, this game is indeed déjà vu all over again.
David Lauricella has overseen sending enough bottled water to tsunami victims in Japan to fill an 18-wheeler, still thousands more bottles of water to tornado victims in Alabama, thousands of pairs of reading glasses to missionaries for distribution to the poor in South America and countless bales of hay to drought-stricken farmers in Texas. In addition, he and his army of volunteers purchased thousands of cans of food to replenish the Kenner Food Bank prior to last Christmas. And so it continues.
The Rev. David Lauricella may still have a lot of toe room in those big shoes he’s been destined to fill, but he says those shoes are getting a little more comfortable with each passing day.