NEW ORLEANS- For Jonah Leavell, flooding is a familiar foe. The 18-year-old New Orleans native fled his home in the city's 9th Ward nearly two years ago, as Hurricane Katrina closed in on the Gulf Coast. Less than a week later, large swaths of New Orleans were under water, and miles of homes, including Leavell's, were in ruins.
Leavell returned to the still-devastated 9th Ward late last month, but this time the occasion was a happy one: Leavell was graduating from high school. That's a particularly striking accomplishment for Leavell and his 13 fellow seniors, who made up the first graduating class of Desire Street Academy, a Christian school for at-risk, urban boys. The school faced extinction when Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters engulfed its 9th Ward campus.
The academy, which survived as a boarding school in Florida and Baton Rouge, held graduation ceremonies at the refurbished 9th Ward facility on May 23. The seniors and their displaced families faced a smaller, but familiar, trial on graduation day: another flood. With a week to go before the official start of hurricane season, rain poured and water rose nearly two feet on low-lying Desire Street. Chaplain Reynaldo King reminded the crowd in prayer: "Even when the storms rise in our lives, our anchor holds."
Presbyterian (PCA) minister Mo Leverett founded Desire Street Ministries (DSM) in 1990 with the goal of gospel-based renewal in the spiritually and socially stormy 9th Ward, which was then one of the most poverty-stricken and crime-ridden neighborhoods in the country.
After 10 years of tenacious youth ministry and discipleship, DSM launched Desire Street Academy (DSA), a Christian school for urban boys, beginning with 7th grade. In a neighborhood full of single mothers in rows of public housing, DSM believed transforming young men was key to transforming the neighborhood and breaking cycles of inter-generational poverty, crime, and broken families.
The school opened at the ministry's 9th Ward facility in 2002. Sitting on bleachers in the school's gym on the eve of his graduation last month, Leavell remembered that first day. "We were a little skeptical," he told WORLD. Leavell and his fellow classmates had grown up in local public schools, where crime and apathy were the norm. They didn't know what to expect from DSA.
But Leavell says he quickly knew this school would be different: Teachers were "really up close," he says, even giving out cell phone numbers for after-school help: "But not just for homework-you could call them for anything you needed to talk about."
Leavell had plenty to talk about. Living in a tiny house with his mother, grandmother, sister, and three brothers (including a twin), life in the 9th Ward was full of "crime, poverty, drugs, murder, violence," he says. "I always felt like, 'I'm going to get away from this.'"
Finishing high school loomed large in Leavell's plans to get away, and by 2005 some 195 students were enrolled in DSA. But at the beginning of Leavell's junior year, high school took him and his classmates farther away than he expected.
When Leavell and his twin brother evacuated New Orleans in August 2005 with a DSA teacher and his wife, they thought they would quickly return. In the living room of the teacher's extended family in Monroe, La., Leavell watched in disbelief as Hurricane Katrina and a broken levee deluged his neighborhood with a wall of water.
All Leavell could think of was his mother, who had been stranded at work during the storm. "We thought we lost our mom," he says. "It's only by the grace of God that we didn't." Leavell's mother safely made it to Baton Rouge, where she eventually settled in a FEMA trailer. The rest of Leavell's family ended up scattered through Texas, Arkansas, and California.
The rest of DSM's staff and students were scattered across the country as well. (Many students and their families had evacuated with the help of ministry staff.) Within a week, Leverett and school officials were clamoring for a way to keep the academy open, even as the ministry's 36,000-square-foot campus sat soaking under water in the 9th Ward.
Less than a month later, the staff transformed a beachside 4-H camp in Niceville, Fla., into a temporary boarding school and arranged pickup points across the South to transport DSA students to the Florida panhandle. Leavell joined more than 80 students, and nearly the entire staff of DSA teachers, at the rustic boarding school in Niceville.
A year later, the school permanently relocated to Baton Rouge, where the ministry purchased a 24-acre tract of property with vacant church and school buildings. The academy serves 65 boarding students displaced by Katrina, and 30 more from the Baton Rouge area. With large sections of the 9th Ward still ruined and uninhabited, principal Al Jones says, "We're a Baton Rouge school now."
Leavell finished school in Baton Rouge in May, and though being separated from his family and relocating twice in two years was tough, he says, "I always focused on finishing school. That was my main focus." He credits God's grace with his ability to persevere. "There were nights when I cried in bed because I felt like my life was so screwed up," Leavell said. "Without my faith I would have probably given up on everything."
Leavell isn't the only one who didn't give up. Half of his fellow graduates are pursuing vocational training, and the other half are pursuing college, statistics Jones calls "quite the accomplishment since some will be the first in their families to complete high school."
Leavell plans to enroll this fall in Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss., where he will pursue an associate's degree in business administration. Eventually he may pursue pediatrics. Ultimately, Leavell wants to be an example to his community and his family, including an older brother who has been in and out of jail: "I want to be somebody who made it."
The next day, Karen Weber was glad she made it to DSM. Her son, Byron, was graduating, and she had driven from Houston, where she fled after the hurricane ruined her family's 9th Ward rental home.
An hour before graduation, Weber stood under an awning in front of the gym at DSM, watching the driving rain fill Desire Street. It had been raining nearly three hours, and cars were suddenly stranded in flooding on nearby streets. The Louisiana National Guard rescued at least one family trapped in a car under a bridge less than a mile away.
Flash floods aren't uncommon in the low-lying 9th Ward where the drainage is poor, but the waters were uncanny on this day. Weber thought about the day nearly two years ago when she left her neighborhood as it filled with water.
One of her first thoughts was: "What about the school?" Weber desperately wanted Byron, a junior at the time, to remain in the academy, which she calls a life-saver. "He wasn't doing good" before enrolling at DSA, she says.
Byron evacuated to Atlanta with DSA staff members and stuck with the school in Florida and Baton Rouge. "He's graduating with a 3.85 GPA," Weber beams. Byron plans to study accounting at Southeastern Louisiana University in nearby Hammond this fall.
Weber said this day was especially poignant since Byron is the youngest of her seven children. Another son was killed in a violent crime in New Orleans several years earlier. "I'm glad Byron could have something different," she said.
As the event grew closer, cars continued to plow through the street's standing water and onto DSM's parking lot on higher ground. Inside, the rain wasn't dampening the celebratory mood. Graduates hugged, laughed, and posed for photos with friends, family, and staff members.
The event began 15 minutes late to allow more time for navigating the treacherous roads. Despite the conditions, some 300 people filled rows of seats in the gym and cheered wildly as the graduates processed to their seats on stage.
New Orleans city councilman Oliver Thomas delivered the commencement address, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees encouraged the graduates to be godly men. Some of the most moving words came from graduates themselves: Jonathan Rochon read from Proverbs 22: "The rich and the poor meet together and the Lord is the maker of them all. . . . Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it."
Valedictorian Rodney Clark told parents and teachers: "We understand how much you are counting on us to be productive." He told his fellow graduates: "Jesus loves us, and because He lives in us, we must excel."
In the parking lot after graduation, Principal Jones smiled as a small crowd watched the street and waited for the water level to subside. The flood didn't faze him. "We still made it," he said. Jones, who wears a gold lapel pin reading "No Excuses," hopes the graduates will excel and be productive. He dreams of seeing the young men return as teachers, pastors, or city councilmen. Most of all, he prays they will "become strong, Christian men and keep the Lord in their life."
That's what DSM has taught the graduates, according to Leavell: "They've taught us how to be good fathers instead of dope dealers, men of God instead of men of the streets." For those lessons, Leavell can hardly contain his excitement or gratitude: "I just praise God because He's been blessing me so much, and I give Him all the praise and glory."
Mo Leverett feels like a veteran of war. The founder of Desire Street Ministries (DSM) labored in the trenches of New Orleans' beleaguered 9th Ward for more than 16 years, fighting the harrowing effects of poverty and sin with a gospel-based ministry aimed at urban youth. "The devil has had dominion there for so long, it's hard to come out unscathed," Leverett told WORLD.
Leverett came out sooner than he expected when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the 9th Ward and scattered the ministry in 2005. Late last year, Leverett, who is no longer with DSM, launched Rebirth International, a New Orleans-based ministry aimed at replicating the DSM model of urban renewal in other poverty-stricken areas around the country.
"I wish this was more of an impulse in the church," Leverett says of urban ministry to the poor. He hopes to educate churches and seminaries on methods for urban ministry and to develop an internship program to inspire a new generation of Christians who will do the hard work of inner-city ministry by living and working in the neighborhoods they serve.
Actually, Leverett says, this kind of ministry is "more than hard work. This is the cross. This is losing your life for the sake of others." But Leverett has learned firsthand: "There's no way for us to advance the cause of Christ without suffering."