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Photo by David Phelps

Restless retiree

Lifestyle/Technology | Radical robber, Christian poverty-fighter Gerry Phelps is redeeming time

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

Retirement for Gerry Phelps means reading through her Bible for the 45th time. From her 15th-floor apartment in the RBJ Towers, a low-income senior citizen complex founded by Lyndon Baines Johnson in honor of his mother Rebekah, Phelps can read and enjoy a panoramic view of downtown Austin: capitol dome, corporate towers, the University of Texas campus.

The LBJ connection is a nice touch. Phelps despised him and Richard Nixon, and in 1969 went to prison for her role in the botched armed robbery of a liquor store meant to raise funds for a radical, anti-war newspaper. At the time she committed the crime, Phelps was a leftist, working on her Ph.D. and teaching economics at the University of Houston.

In prison she became a Christian. In 1976, after serving seven years of a 35-year sentence, she gained parole to San Francisco. She attended there a Methodist seminary where fellow students shared her politics but didn't understand her prison-formed, Bible-based belief in Christ and His miracles.

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"I knew I was called to minister to the poor," she says, so she founded and ran two homeless shelters, applying what she had learned in prison: Tough love works, handouts don't. When Phelps returned to Texas in 1992 to be closer to her grandson, she started a poverty-fighting charity along compassionate conservative principles.

Now that she's retired, life can be hard for a person who led an eventful life and has unfinished work. At age 76 besides Bible reading Phelps is trying to publish two books she has written, and working on two more. (Her practical book about helping poor people is on her website, gerrycharlottephelps.com.)

"My biggest struggle is trying to get to bed on time," Phelps says. Four stacks of books, nine and 10 volumes deep, sit on her coffee table as evidence of her current projects, continuations of her life interests in helping the poor and renewing the church. She sees poor people as canaries in the coal mine, evidence that we have a "poverty-producing, crime-producing culture" that can only be fixed by a revival of Christianity through evangelism and the discipling of new believers.

Newly diagnosed with macular degeneration, she uses a magnifier to see her computer screen. She winces as she gets up to fetch tea, yet says, "I have a lot of health for a person my age. . . . I've had such a good life. I'm content . . . I have friends and I have family." And yet she has a sense of things undone. "Each of us has our experiences. If you keep it all locked up in your head it's lost. If you want to share it, you have to write it. . . . It's not about being remembered, but having what you've learned be remembered beyond the walls of your mind."

Phelps is finding not enough time in her days for the work she has to do: "My time is too taken up with logistical work." She's a self-described "health nut" with a special diet, and that "takes a lot of preparation time. Cleaning and laundry . . . I don't mind doing any of that, but it doesn't leave me enough time to read and write, especially since I have some kind of time limit on me because of the eyes."

She's frustrated with her lack of success getting her books published beyond the web, "but I don't go around crying, except at prayer time. I might cry then. . . . I have a good, very frustrated life. You can quote me on that."

Yellow alert

If you wear a Lance Armstrong LiveStrong armband, you should leave it at home before checking into a hospital. According to The Journal for Hospital Medicine, some hospitals use yellow bands to indicate patients with Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders. A study showed that medical personnel at several hospitals confused the LiveStrong bands with DNR bands, with near fatal results. The Journal is recommending that hospitals standardize colors to minimize the chance of error.

Easy energy

Simple biogas digesters provide cheap energy for poor people throughout the world. A tank built for about $300 in Costa Rica takes animal waste and water and converts it to energy through the process of anaerobic digestion (breakdown of organic matter without oxygen). In Vietnam, more than 36,000 family biogas tanks allow families to use less wood for fuel and gain high-quality fertilizer for fields.

China is encouraging chicken farmers to use biogas digesters to deal with mounting piles of dung. The Beijing regime plans to build big farm-based digesters and double the number of small, family-based systems by 2010. Columbia, Mo., built a $2.5 million high-tech biogas plant to provide 1.5 percent of the city's annual energy use.

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