“For God loves the person who gives cheerfully...”
- 2 Corinthians 9:7
Saturday 11:35 a.m.
Some 20,000 pounds of rice is on its way to a backwater of the world Pastor Marion “Sugar” Lauricella can't even begin to pronounce, and all would agree that the little man with the perpetual smile on his face has done it again: He's managed to hustle, cajole, browbeat and simply ask one person for what another needs … and get it.
“It's what life’s all about!” Lauricella says from behind a desk in his tiny office next to his Harahan Christian Church on Hickory Street, where the 76-year-old preacher has spent his entire life.
“There's nothing more important than helping others,” Lauricella says. “You'd be amazed at how other people want to get involved! They want you to ask them to pitch in and help out. And most often they do.”
To be sure, Lauricella’s “little church” (his words) would never be mistaken for one of those mega-storied, glass prayer emporiums with a parking lot the size of five football fields. Lauricella's simple structure makes no pretension to grandeur and calls in no more than 30 people for Sunday services, despite the signs all around that read: “Goal – three to a pew?”
Lauricella reads one of the signs and throws his head back in laughter.
“Thirty people,” he says. “That’s the whole congregation. We get more than that and we gotta form committees and they gotta vote on everything. Most big churches today have two things they concentrate on: membership and budgets. Not us! We don't have to do that. Look, I live on Social Security and a $200 a month retirement from the power company. The church takes care of my house note and my car note. What else could I want?”
A bigger map of the world, for one thing. The one in the back of Lauricella's church is filling up with lines jutting out from Harahan to Honduras, Guatemala. Russia, Mozambique, Ethiopia and a hundred other spots around the globe. To most they are only sound bites on the evening news, but to Sugar Lauricella, they are places with people – people who will die unless they are fed. Over the past 20 years, Lauricella and friends have put together deals that have sent ships laden with food to foreign ports and 18-wheelers to American cities battered by hurricanes and tornadoes.
Lauricella learns of most of the trouble spots while looking over the morning paper during breakfast – coffee down the street – with his circle of cronies that include Harahan Police Chief Peter Dale and business types from the area. First, he tries to pronounce the name of the place, then he goes into action with phone calls to donors, rice mills, suppliers and then to his buddy Larry Jones, who runs the worldwide organization, “Feed the Children”, the group that takes care of the transportation.
An inauspicious career for a man who started out running a “less than legal” poker game in a backroom: “One guy was losing bad one day so he calls the state police. They come and say they're going to turn this over to the town marshall. I told them, well you'd better hurry up, he's in the back playing poker and he's on a hot streak!” Lauricella again throws his head back in laughter and barely misses conking his head on the lamp hanging from the ceiling.
The telephone rings and the pastor wipes the tears of laughter from his eyes and answers it. Soon, his laughter turns to a somber pall that covers the room: “My God, what a tragedy,” he says. “I'll do what I can, but the important thing is that these people not worry about that. They have to grieve and they can't do that properly and have this on their minds also.”
The call is from a woman who tells Lauricella of an impoverished family nearby who was sleeping on the floor in a tiny apartment without furniture. They awoke to find their infant dead.
Lauricella shakes his head in disbelief and bites his bottom lip. He composes himself. And a gritty look of determination crosses his face. He whispers the word, “power” and does not explain.
“We used to hold Sunday service at city hall,” he says almost without missing a beat. “One day the pastor up and left. And four of us got together and decided that we'd each take a Sunday and preach and read from the book. Well that didn't last anytime. Three of the other guys never showed up, so I became the pastor. by default, I guess. I didn't go to a seminary or anything else. This went on for a while until a friend said, ‘Sugar, if you're going to be a pastor, you've got to be ordained and sign in so's you can marry people. You can't just marry people without signing in.’ Well, you take the Baptist pastors, they go to a seminary but they're not ordained there. A church calls them and the church ordains them. That's what this friend of mine did. He said, ‘I have a friend who's a pastor and he owes me a favor. This pastor eventually came in and he ordained me. That was 40 years ago … I'm just ordinary people. That’s what our church is … ordinary people. We don't have a denomination. People ask me, ‘Sugar are you Baptist, Methodist or what?’ I tell ‘em, we’re ‘independent.’”
Working independently, “Just call me Sugar” has moved everything around the world, from 20,000 chocolate soft drinks, 280,000 pounds of sweet potatoes, countless thousands of gallons of bottled water to replace contaminated water supplies in Ethiopia, 20,000 donuts, 1,200 shovels to help the people of Mozambique dig out after a flood – “I didn't know how the world I was going to get these shovels to the people in Mozambique,” Lauricella says. “But I knew we would somehow.”
Lauricella has replaced “powdered eggs that taste like cardboard” for the real McCoy for post-Katrina volunteer workers in St. Bernard and has handed out 20,000 cups of ice cream to Katrina-devastated Jefferson Parish residents from the back of an 18-wheeler.
He admits he has been in pain during the year since his assistant pastor and soul mate, his wife of 50 years, Antoinette, passed away; but Sugar Lauricella manages to keep that smile going and those trucks rolling. He says simply, “This was her work also. Gotta do this for her too.”
Sunday 11:35 a.m.
Twenty-five or so members of the shirt-sleeved and “Sunday dress” congregation are sparsely scattered around the church. They have come to hear ‘Pastor Sugar’ preach on “power.”
After a few hymns are sung and Bible verses are preached, Lauricella delivers his sermon.
Sugar tells the gathered parishoners the tragedy of that young couple he learned of just yesterday, “our neighbors, who had nothing, and who woke up one morning to find they had even less.” He told of a child who was “called home” by Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and about how this family grieved.
He told them of making a telephone call to a friend who owns a large funeral home in Metairie and about how that friend told him, “Sugar, I'll take care of everything – funeral services, casket. No charge. These poor people have lost everything. They don't need to have this burden also.”
“That’s what power is!” Lauricella tells the congregation. “The power to help others! This man, this businessman with his eye on the bottom line, had that power and he chose to use that power to help others ... to help a poor family that was already down and out and was now devastated. That is real power! Now, we always have to ask, do we use that power or do we not use that power?”
Following the hour-long service as members of the congregation filter out into the bright, breezy Sunday morning, there was unanimous agreement, unspoken, but heard loud and clear: “Pastor Sugar uses his power … every day.