Wuerffel ministry works to rebuild New Orleans

Published: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

NEW ORLEANS — On a chilly Tuesday morning, a sand-colored Humvee rolls through the upper Ninth Ward. Manned by two National Guardsmen, the vehicle is a somewhat menacing symbol of authority in a neighborhood otherwise void of any order.

(Look below for video of the Desire Street minstries.)

Gutted homes line the streets. A broken merry-go-round stands still in an abandoned playground.

The Humvee's rumbling engine breaks the eerie silence of streets that have been desolate since Hurricane Katrina struck here more than 16 months ago. The crumbling roads — with names like Treasure, Abundance, Piety and Desire — are a patchwork of potholes and dips.

"It's been sort of our hope to one day live to fulfill those names," says Ben McLeish, area director of Desire Street Ministries. "There's still that opportunity, but it's a long road ahead."

Desire Street Ministries was founded 16 years ago to help lift up the impoverished and violent community known as the Desire neighborhood. The ministry is now headed by Danny Wuerffel, the former University of Florida quarterback who led the Gators to a national championship at the Sugar Bowl in this city 10 years ago.

As with everything in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina dramatically changed things for the ministry. Finding affordable housing has become a major obstacle for those who hope to return to New Orleans after evacuating, and the ministry is launching a program to provide housing. An effort is also under way to rebuild churches that suffered massive damage and lost members due to evacuation and death.

Post-Katrina, changes have come to the ministry's Desire Street Academy, a school formed for at-risk youth three years before the storm hit. After sustaining about $1.2 million in damages, the academy was moved to Destin, Fla., and has since relocated to Baton Rouge, La. The school serves about 100 students.

The ministry's founder, the Rev. Mo Leverett, had initially hoped to improve the New Orleans school system but opted instead to open the academy when change proved slow if not impossible.

"We really didn't want to start a school," McLeish said. "We wanted to affect the school system."

Leverett, who was a football coach in the community before he began the ministry, made sports a vital part of the program. This year, the academy's basketball team will continue to play its games in New Orleans under rules set by the Louisiana Athletic Association.

Wuerffel, who could not be reached for comment for this story, has been the academy's executive director since 2005. A Heisman trophy winner, Wuerffel has used the fame he earned in sports to raise funds for the ministry. This year, the ministry will operate on a budget of about $4 million, steering those funds toward revitalization programs in New Orleans and operating the academy.

Outside of the Carver Desire Baptist Church a sign reads "Open for Business." The church, which was flooded with 11 feet of water during Katrina, was the first in the Desire neighborhood to reopen after the storm.

The congregation is not what it once was. The Rev. Jim Willis says about 200 people attended his church on an average Sunday before the storm but now has between 85 and 100. Once home to about 5,000 people, blocks and blocks of Desire are empty now, and sightings of people on the streets are rare.

Carver Desire Baptist Church is part of an alliance of churches that comprise a group called Churches United for Revitalization and Evangelism, abbreviated CURE. The mission of the group, which is affiliated with Desire Street Ministries, is to revitalize spiritual centers in neighborhoods.

"We're going to stay," said Willis, CURE's executive director. "We're going to rebuild our churches. We're going to rebuild the community we're a part of."

Despite Willis' optimism, he still has great frustrations. When it comes to delivering resources to the Ninth Ward, Willis says federal and city officials have proven inept.

"The truth of the matter is that when it gets down to where people are impacted — putting clothes on their back — it was the church that has done that," he said.

Even though obstacles remain, Willis says he believes New Orleanians' faith in God has grown — even if their faith in government hasn't.

"I think that most people's faith has only deepened," he said.

"A lot of people began to really think about what's really important. It's not so much material things. It's people that you love and care about."

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