I met Mimi Crabtree at the Christian Community Development Association’s national conference in the New Orleans Hyatt Regency. Street Evangelist Nancy Alonzo recruited her to help oversee the prayer room. Nancy and Mimi were locals, so I put their names on my list of possible stories. Six months later, I found time to meet Mimi at a restaurant. I sipped a vanilla cappuccino while she unfolded a story of God’s grace.
Mimi’s grandparents lived on top of Central Grocery in the French Quarter. The famous home of the original Muffuletta, featured on the PBS special “Sandwiches That You Will Like” and The Today Show’s “Five Best Sandwiches” series. Her father’s first job was squishing olives for Central’s olive salad.
He later worked at the Post Office by day and tended bar at the Napoleon House by night. Artist and writers frequented the famous bar throughout most of the 20th century. The atmosphere suited the Italian Catholic family. Her mother sang and loved art. Her father loved jazz and Italian opera.
Mimi was born Michella Palao and baptized at the iconic St. Louis Cathedral. Her father nicknamed her Mimi, after the main character in La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini. She spent much of her childhood in the French Quarter and often played with friends in Jackson Square. Surrounded by the arts from birth, she developed a love for singing at a young age.
During high school, Mimi became deeply involved in the Jefferson Parish players’ theater. She memorized Matthew’s Gospel for a part in Godspell, a musical adaptation of the gospel. Mimi sang “Day by Day,” the third song in the show’s score. The refrain follows a prayer ascribed to the 13th-century English Bishop Saint Richard of Chichester.
Day by day, oh, dear Lord, three things I pray
To see thee more clearly
Love thee more dearly
Follow thee more nearly, day by day
The words of the song became an answered prayer when a move of God swept Angela, Mimi’s best friend and sister, into Christianity. Mimi’s father thought his daughter had joined a cult. Mimi thought her sister was a little crazy, but could not deny the dramatic change in her life. Angela no longer desired drugs and alcohol. She even lived a celibate life until she married.
Knowing the change in her sister was genuine, Mimi accepted Angela’s invitation to attend Westbank Revival Center. At the end of the service, Mimi found salvation. After Angela left for Bible College, Mimi discovered her devotion to God was not as strong as her sisters. She loved the Lord, but she also loved partying with friends and wasn’t willing to abandon the prospects of singing jazz and blues on Bourbon Street. Mimi’s conversion left her struggling to exist in two different worlds, reluctant to release either one.
Angela knew Mimi loved the Lord. She also knew the pull of the world was strong. When she returned home, she confronted Mimi. “How are you doing in your walk with Christ?”
Conviction swept over Mimi. “It’s so hard being a Christian.”
“No, Mimi,” said Angela. “It’s not hard being a Christian. It’s hard serving two masters.”
Mimi married shortly after she accepted Christ and soon became pregnant. Determined to raise her children in a wholesome atmosphere, she attended church weekly. Her desire to sing found an outlet in the church choir. As she sought the Lord, the Holy Spirit gave her strength to release her worldly life. Once Mimi chose Christ as her only Lord, she never went back or even considered returning to her old life.
The choir director discerned an anointing upon Mimi’s life and asked her to sing a solo. Her gift to minister through song became obvious as people wept and accepted Christ. The director continued to assign solos to Mimi, who grew increasingly confident God had called her to ministry. Her ministry expanded to include preaching when a scripture from Luke spoke to Mimi’s heart.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…”(Luke 4:18 NIV).
“I knew I was called to do the work of an evangelist through song and word when God spoke that scripture to my heart. Doors opened through word of mouth to minister in churches and Christian Coffee Houses,” said Mimi.
Mimi’s ministry expanded when Tony Dunn, an African-American, came to her mother’s house to practice singing “More Than Wonderful” with Mimi’s mother. Acclaimed gospel singers Sandi Patti and Larnelle Harris made the song a popular duet in the 1980s. Her mother struggled to sing the higher notes and asked Mimi to try. From the first time Mimi and Tony sang together, they knew God would use them in ministry. For the next eight years, Mimi and Tony traveled regionally, spreading the gospel and tearing down walls of prejudice in the church.
Her ministry continued to flourish after Tony moved to California. She ministered in prisons, nursing homes, at weddings and funerals, in churches and conferences. One day, she received a call from Victory Fellowship. An assistant pastor said, “Your name keeps coming to my attention. Would you be interested in singing at Café Joel on Bourbon Street?” Mimi had heard about the Café when she visited the church to hear a guest speaker and already had a desire to be involved in the ministry. “I have been waiting for you to call me all my life,” she replied.
The church had established the Christian coffee house to minister to tourist that visited the famous street. Some tourist found their way into the coffeehouse, but most of the patrons were young people with nose rings, unkempt dreadlocks and painted faces that locals called gutter punks. “I was singing the gospel to homeless hurting people that church people didn’t want in the church when the Holy Spirit flooded me with the realization I had come 180 degrees,” said Mimi. “If I had not accepted the Lord, I would have been across the street singing in night clubs stepping on the next guy to get to the top.”
I drank the last dregs of my cappuccino and pondered the lesson of Mimi’s experience. Mimi lost nothing when she sacrificed her desire to sing at Bourbon Street nightclubs on the altar of obedience. God accepted her sacrifice, fashioned it into something better, and returned it. Instead of stepping on people to get to the top, she helped people whose lives had hit bottom find the top again.
Café Joel no longer operates on Bourbon Street, but Mimi, a licensed minister with Victory Assembly, remains active in ministry. She has recorded three CD’s (He’ll Do It Again, Come Worship The King, and Overwhelming Love) and ministers in churches and conferences. Every Tuesday she ministers with Chaplain Kathy Radke Storey in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center. She also teaches at Mary’s Song Restoration Center for women with life controlling addictions.