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A day in the life...

National | How "Coach Mo" lives out the gospel in one of the hardest neighborhoods of the Big Easy

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

in New Orleans-Richard Scarry has won fame for children's books with titles like What Do People Do All Day? Few people understand what New Orleans minister Mo Leverett does all day, and what he has done most days for the past 10 years. As founder of Desire Street Ministries (DSM), an outreach program that uses Christian principles to disciple youth and foster economic renewal, he is a white man who has dedicated his life to mentoring black kids in New Orleans' worst ghetto. Here's what he and two people he has inspired do on a typical day: ¡º a.m. On a rainy summer morning, Mr. Leverett winds his car through narrow New Orleans streets named Pleasure and Abundance, showing a reporter the gutted warehouses, crumbling brick housing projects, and razor-wire fences of his neighborhood. On Desire Street, three miles north of the French Quarter, rows of graffiti-covered housing projects sit amid piles of dirt and broken glass. Behind thick metal doors, project residents stare like frightened prisoners through rectangular window slats. This is the Ninth Ward, an area whose daily drug shoot-outs garnered it a reputation as "New Orleans' murder capital." With 10,000 units in the center of the ward, the Desire projects gained notoriety during the 1950s as the second-largest (and one of the most dangerous) housing projects in the nation. Although city officials recently demolished most of the units, some 1,000 people still live inside the rat-infested rubble. Over half are children under the age of 17 whose single mothers live below the poverty level. In 1991, Mr. Leverett moved into a tiny duplex home near the projects, his family of four becoming the only white family in the Ninth Ward. For the next nine years, he volunteered as an assistant football coach at the public high school and led locker-room Bible studies. He remembers how his passion for cross-cultural outreach began during high-school years in Macon, Ga., where he felt forced to live a double life: Friday nights on the football field, with white and black teammates pursuing victory together, and Sunday mornings at all-white churches where racial jokes brought laughs. "On the football field there were two cultures working together toward a common goal," he says, but at other times "I had the heart-wrenching experience of discovering that the people who most resisted the struggle for freedom were white evangelical Southern men like me." After a broken hip dashed his dreams of a football career, he enrolled in Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Miss., studied faith-based models for urban renewal, and became an ordained minister within the theologically conservative Presbyterian Church in America. ¡¡ a.m. Wearing tube socks, khaki shorts, and a navy polo shirt, Mr. Leverett is standing before an office blackboard in the $3 million outreach center he opened last year across from the housing projects. With a slickly polished gymnasium, 10 classrooms, and 13 new computers, the 36,000-square-foot building, built with private donations, doubles as a youth recreation center and a church. Today he is training three of his 20 full-time employees. Like a coach explaining play-by-play strategy, he draws lots of little arrows and circles. But the game plan starts with a phrase: "incarnational ministry." Mr. Leverett tells his students, "Like Christ, you have to enter into their lives and suffer redemptively for them. Part of that suffering is just demonstrating a willingness, a willingness to hear gun shots at night, to feel insecure, unsafe, and exposed." In addition to offering weekly tutoring, Bible studies, and sports leagues, Mr. Leverett helps students start for-profit businesses, including the "Brothers Realty" housing renovation program. He's also planning for next year, when the outreach center will host the area's first private school-Desire Street Academy. ™ p.m. While Mr. Leverett does more mentoring, staff members like 25-year-old Heather Holdsworth are working the neighborhood. As DSM education director, Miss Holdsworth every afternoon visits Carver Washington High School, located three blocks from the projects and with the look of a giant warehouse. Outside are gray bricks and chain-link fences. Inside, the classroom doors have deadlocks, and the hallways are bare except for signs touting the school health clinic and day-care center. Sporting tattooed arms and baseball caps turned backward, the students have crowded into a small gymnasium for a school basketball game. Miss Holdsworth is there, sitting amid hundreds of shouting students in the gymnasium bleachers, greeting them and inviting them to after-school tutoring. When she first arrived three years ago, none of the students would speak to her. Even local police officers stopped her, asking if she had come to buy drugs. "She was a white girl who came out of nowhere. So it took me a good three months to speak to her," said Dwana, a 17-year-old student. Now, though, Dwana prays twice a week with Heather and attends DSM Bible studies and tutoring classes. Carrying a pink diaper bag, she leaves the basketball game at 3 p.m. to retrieve her 8-month-old baby. This June, Dwana will marry the baby's 18-year-old father inside the Desire Street Ministries building. "I want my baby to grow up reading the Bible and doing the right things," she said. Each year, Miss Holdsworth helps some 30 students like Dwana pass their ACT college admission tests and apply for financial aid. That's a noteworthy accomplishment considering that Carver students average a dismal 14 out of a possible 36 points on the ACT test. The welfare mentality that pervades the projects provides a formidable obstacle to her efforts, says Miss Holdsworth. While tutoring seniors, for instance, she discovered that several parents allowed their kids to apply for disability certificates instead of diplomas so the family could receive federal aid. That decision automatically disqualified them from college scholarships. £:£º p.m. Mo Leverett is doing his best to break the underachieving mentality by emphasizing the second part of his game plan: indigenous leadership. Inside the DSM classrooms, students peruse books including the Westminster Confession of Faith. They are pupils in Mr. Leverett's first Urban Theological Institute, a school designed to create indigenous spiritual leaders. Institute student Richard Johnson, one of Mr. Leverett's first disciples, says a lesson on the "Noetic principle" (man's blindness to sin) caught his attention: "The principle applies to the projects: There's no family foundation for children to see here. All we had were guys and women just having sex and selling drugs. That's all our kids see and they don't see any wrong in it. In our community you are respected if you are a great athlete, a big drug dealer, or a murderer." During high school, Mr. Johnson says, he respected his older cousin, a drug user who eventually shot his mother seven times. Mr. Johnson believes he was destined for similar destruction until "Coach Mo" became his new role model: "When he first walked on the field, we were like, man, somebody's going to jail. Because a lot of the guys on the team were selling drugs and we thought he was a cop. Coach Mo wasn't just another fly-by-night white dude. He stood firm and he coached, he preached and he loved." § p.m. Dressed in baggy jean shorts and a black jacket, Mr. Johnson stands behind a wooden podium as some 100 high-school students file into the gym for a Tuesday night Bible study. Boys with spray-painted nylons tied around their heads and girls wearing lots of gold jewelry chat noisily. But the audience grows quiet as Mr. Johnson explains the concepts of original sin and undeserved grace. "We can't overcome sin on our own because there is nothing in us that is spiritual," he tells them. "If you are watching porno flicks or doing drugs, the only way to overcome those things is to let Christ rule in your heart." Later, Mr. Johnson confides that he feels a sense of urgency at every Bible study. Too often, unresponsive students walk out the door only to become victims of drive-by shootings or drug overdoses: "Sometimes I feel like they aren't listening, but I keep preaching anyway. Knowing that Christ paid a debt I couldn't repay keeps me going." As Mr. Johnson teaches Bible study, "Coach Mo" squeezes in some family time at his 9-year-old daughter's softball game. Watching her play, he remembers other children he watched today, especially those who came to the Bible study to escape the drugs or physical abuse that pervade their own homes. "I feel many different emotions as I think about that," says Mr. Leverett. "I want to shelter my own children, but I also want to teach them the heart of Christ." Although his children attend a school outside the ward, Mr. Leverett encourages them to interact with playmates from the housing projects during after-school programs and Sunday school. Some people have called Mr. Leverett's decision to move his family into the ghetto a foolhardy sacrifice. But sacrifice is just his point, he says: "I want my children to see the incarnate gospel."

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