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Into the arms of God

Across the country there is reason to be thankful for good works that make it possible for people to walk away from drugs, gangs, death, discouragement, and . . .

What Christians do: Part 1

Evelyn Turner left New Orleans so late on Saturday night, Aug. 27, 2005, that it may have been Sunday morning. With her two daughters and one's fiancé, she headed to family in Charlotte, N.C.

Unlike most people who fled the city in fear of Hurricane Katrina, Turner already knew she had no home to come back to. In the midst of a divorce, the New Orleans native had agreed that her soon-to-be ex-husband would keep their house and pay her what he could when he could.

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Now, two years later, Turner owns her own home in the hard-hit Holly Grove neighborhood. Like millions of others over the centuries, she gained help from Christians who responded to the teachings of the prophets and of Jesus that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Him. In Turner's case the faces of God's help were Kevin Brown and the Trinity Christian Community (TCC) network.

TCC operates within New Orleans' Holly Grove neighborhood, which seven years ago was home to 7,000 people (94 percent of them African-American). About half owned their own homes, but even before Katrina, Holly Grove was falling on hard times. "The middle class moved out white and black. Housing became rental and began to deteriorate. Lots of crime," said Paul Baricos, who is starting a center to encourage home ownership.

Kevin Brown grew up in TCC: His father founded it in 1967. After some years away, Kevin came home to be executive director in 1998. "We've been living this all our lives," he said. Unable to re-enter the city after Katrina, Brown said he spent most of his time on the phone, talking with Christians around the country. So many responded, he said, that "a church around here hired somebody to come and help with the emails."

Then Brown tracked down people he had worked with before-Turner, who had once worked in the center's youth programs, was one of them-and created a team. They worked out of the second floor of the Trinity center, since the lower floor was in shambles, as was Brown's house nearby.

Churches sent men and women with tools, equipment, and cooking supplies, Turner said. "We started housing people in our building. People had cots in the building, cooking grills and barbecue pits, makeshift showers. You looked at it and thought, 'If these folks can go through this, we can do anything.'"

So far more than 6,000 people have come to help, logging more than 200,000 volunteer hours. In addition, federal AmeriCorps members joined the project. They gutted 1,700 homes all over the city, Brown said. So Trinity has rebuilt 25 in Holly Grove and plans to do a total of 150. One of those homes now belongs to Turner.

"We're rebuilding a neighborhood. We're rebuilding lives," said Brown, whose staff has grown from three to 12. "Now people are on their second, third, fourth mission trip down here because they're excited."

Those volunteers made Turner's new home possible. Living in a Holly Grove apartment Trinity had restored early on, Turner had seen a little house that she really liked but didn't think she could afford. One day Brown came and told her, "There's a church that wants to help a family get back in their home and I gave 'em your name."

Turner bought the house. Then, one church group came to build a kitchen, stayed to put up dry wall, and purchased the flooring, too. The next week, Turner said, Mennonites came and put in the floors. "They never stopped. They worked till dark," she said. Other, smaller groups came after that. Turner moved into her house on March 25, her 56th birthday.

Much remains to be done. Two-thirds of Holly Grove's former residents have not returned. Five of the neighborhood's 12 pre-storm churches are back. But Turner in her new home is rejoicing at the restoration to this point: "It's a tiny little house, but it's absolutely perfect for me. The things that have happened to me-it's just an affirmation of God's plan."

In the history of Christianity, Turner isn't the first person to experience such care.

By a.d. 568 Rome was in ruins, ravaged by 150 years of Goth, Vandal, Byzantine, and Longobard invasion. Once a city of perhaps 1.5 million, Rome bottomed out at 30,000. Outside the city, continual wars turned fields back into swamps. Invaders threatened and sometimes took over once-productive church-run farms. Malaria, cholera, and bubonic plague followed. Jobs evaporated. Once-flourishing estates were abandoned. Famine became a fact of life. Floods covered the city three or four times a century. Sewers and aqueducts needed repair.

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