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No little people

Culture | With momentous events in the news, don't forget individuals who transform lives one at a time

The Christmas season is one of traditions, and we'd like to recapture one WORLD had from 1994 through 1997: Near the end of each year we profiled several followers of Christ who exemplified Francis Schaeffer's idea that there are "no little people and no little places," because every life has the opportunity to light another, and another.

In a world wrapped in the journalistic adage, "if it bleeds, it leads," it was always a pleasure to write about those covered by Christ's blood transfusing others. We could show, and we show again this year, that those who may feel stuck in a broken-down building-and-loan can still have wonderful lives. God equips ordinary people to do extraordinary things: Even those who stand up alone, out of love and obedience, can illuminate the landscape where they stand, giving hope where it had been extinguished.

As we enter a time of debate about the relationship of government to grace-filled help, tales of little people who play big have a political kick as well. Neighborhood and family efforts show that no one has to wait for Washington to say "go." Individuals can help to transform lives one at a time, in a way that challenges recipients of help to take responsibility wherever they are, as they learn from God who they are.

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This feature includes snapshots of a café in Mississippi and a center in the Bronx that have helped their communities grow after damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and gang violence. We also show a brave woman in Colorado who has not let ovarian cancer keep her from heading a pregnancy resource center, and a family in South Carolina that has made a home for a Russian child with twisted limbs.

But we'll start with the story of a name that may be familiar to WORLD readers: Cono Christian School in Iowa has been a regular advertiser in the magazine. Advertisers get zero preference in editorial decisions about what to cover, but they also should not be redlined just because they advertise. WORLD has never run an article about Cono, yet the story of how its two key founders-Max and Jean Belz, the parents of Joel Belz and seven other children-started in 1951 a school that has since educated 2,500 students from 40 states and 15 foreign countries, is a worthy lead-off to this feature. - Marvin Olasky

"Service and trust"

By Susan Olasky

WALKER, IOWA-At age 89 Jean Belz still lives in a house on Cono's 29-acre campus, which does not include its huge expanse of cornfields but does include several stands of trees and a cluster of buildings, comprised of six student dorms, a gym and classrooms, and a multi-purpose building where the school's 96 students and 30 employees eat, play games, worship, and put on productions.

Jean Belz's chair sits by the fireplace built by her husband Max from field stones gathered nearby. In that chair she reads her Bible and prays, a habit stretching back as long as anyone can remember. Congestive heart failure, glaucoma, and age have slowed her down. She doesn't tend her garden like she used to. Cono students assigned to detention often work it off by doing chores in her yard.

As she sometimes watches students from her kitchen window, still taking note of stragglers who might be late to chapel-she can remember how she and Max moved to this land so that her husband could pastor a church. They had moved into the basement of a building, with the dining room table and a couch in the east end; kitchen appliances, washer, and the furnace in the middle; a fuel bin and fruit shelves on the west side. The whole family slept on another floor, with blankets making room partitions.

Max Belz was not only a pastor but an entrepreneur. He ran a grain business then a printing business and in 1951 added headmaster to his list of jobs. Joel Belz wrote in an obituary of his father, "Dad knew that not even the zeal of a fresh start was adequate to sustain any church over the long pull, and especially not in a rural area where population was declining. The children of the church must be kept, and taught, and secured for the church's future."

Cono started with two families, seven students, and a commitment to teaching Christianly. "I don't want my children fed or clothed by the state," Max Belz said, "but even worse would be to have them educated by the state." A teacher, Dorothy Thompson, developed the curriculum, with Max Belz teaching Bible, music, and choir, and Jean Belz teaching English literature and Latin. Cono grew gradually throughout the 1950s, adding a few students from neighboring communities. It graduated its first class of two in 1957 and two more the next year.

In 1960 an expanded ministry beckoned, as the ninth-grade son of a missionary in Jordan moved in with the Belzes and attended Cono. Soon other missionary kids enrolled, and after them students from Ethiopia and Korea. In the 1980s and 1990s the school expanded its mission even further, welcoming students from around the country in various kinds of spiritual and familial distress. Current Cono chancellor Andrew Belz says Cono became "a redemptive school, a place for young people who needed a place to go away from home."

Today, some kids come to Cono because of parental death or divorce. Some need to work out identity issues connected to adoption, or to find refuge from mean streets. Sometimes parents from abroad want their children to learn and improve their English language skills so they can pursue American higher education and increased opportunity. Sometimes kids from single mother homes need to experience the love and discipline of surrogate fathers. But they all get the same: "love and limits in the name of Jesus."

The constant over the years, according to Andrew Belz, has been his mom, who offered "good and abiding stuff: good food . . . an insistence on good music . . . good literature and good grammar . . . a good work ethic." And Jean Belz's hope for Cono graduates has been consistent: "lives of service and trust."

Café pioneers

By Alisa Harris

BAY ST. LOUIS, MISS.-Martin and Alicein Chambers moved back to Alicein's hometown of Bay St. Louis, Miss., right before Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005. The storm shattered the town but instead of retreating to a place with fewer wrecked memories, the Chamberses decided to make a place where people could heal and rebuild their lives-a coffee shop. Now that the economic storm is buffeting the shop the Chamberses built, the Bay St. Louis community has rallied to save the Mockingbird Café.

Few of the town's buildings stood after Katrina-the hurricane flattened everything a mile inward from the coastline-but a 200-year-old home with chipping paint and a wraparound porch survived. The owners were leaving Bay St. Louis so the Chamberses bought the home, toppled the inside walls to make a long dining room, and repainted. They used old barge wood to make a coffee bar, hung pendant lights from the ceiling, filled it up with battered wooden furniture, and named it the Mockingbird Café.

People rebuilding their homes came to the coffee shop to meet with their contractors and architects. Local artists hung their work on the walls. In the back, people sat and drank beer from the local brewery while they listened to the music and poetry that fills the shop every Thursday night. The Lagniappe Presbyterian Mission Church met for Bible study there, and in two years, the Mockingbird Café found itself a community fixture.

But the population of Bay St. Louis was dwindling, the town was limping economically, and the Chamberses were paying $28,000 a year in insurance costs. "How much coffee do you have to sell just to pay your insurance?" Alicein Chambers asked. They didn't sell enough. She and her husband made changes to their business model too late and decided to close the café. "I felt like I'd let people down," she said.

Bay St. Louis decided not to stay down. A friend held a fundraiser for the café-"Save Our Bird." The girl's Catholic high school held a bake sale. Seventeen people donated food for a potluck cook-off and the local brewery provided beer. People paid $25 a ticket to come and by 8:00 the food and beer ran out. The money totaled $5,000. Alicein Chambers cried-"I was overwhelmed, I really was. So kind, so kind."-and told the crowd the Mockingbird Café would stay in business.

The bank loan is now restructured but the Mockingbird still operates "day to day." The population continues to dwindle and local businesses still struggle. The land near the coast looks deserted, with its crippled trees and naked lots. "It's desolate but it's like looking back, what it must have looked like before it was settled," Alicein said. "It's like we're resettling it. . . . There's beauty in that. We're pioneers."

Spiritual and social healing

By Alisa Harris

NEW YORK CITY-Raymond Rivera, age 62, grew up in Spanish Harlem at a time when gangs divided their world into territories. He quickly learned the essentials of geography, including: Don't go past 3rd Ave. into Italian land. He had individual friendships that transcended ethnic warfare-an Irish friend he called "Whitey" and Italian friends who called him "Pancho"-but nothing that could heal community divisions.

When Rivera was 15 he and his friends went to a Pentecostal revival meeting because they thought the long-haired Pentecostal girls were sexy. They mockingly confessed at the altar to get attention and pretended to be healed, but Rivera finally found himself believing, and his "resocialization" beginning.

"We came from a culture that said you're nobody," he said, one that belittled the Spanish language and told him Hispanics were lazy. The Brooklyn church he began to attend valued Hispanic culture and gave him Latino role models. He went to Bible school and at age 19 became the pastor of a tiny church full of feuding families.

Rivera worked as a community organizer by day and a pastor by night, advocating social change in the morning and "Wait until the Lord comes" in the evening. When he finally realized that Christianity is about both individual salvation and community transformation, he saw that "conversion doesn't happen in a vacuum": Since everything is fallen and captive to sin, loyalty to the Kingdom of God means confronting other kingdoms.

Rivera in 1992 founded the Latino Pastoral Action Center (LPAC) with the goal of helping to transform the Bronx through personal and community liberation, including spiritual and social healing. LPAC provides clothes and food (for more than 300 people at Thanksgiving), works with domestic violence victims, mentors men and women coming out of jail, and trains leaders.

Almost 300 students attend LPAC's K-5 charter school, studying in classrooms exploding with primary colors and child-sized tables and chairs. The view from the windows is ashy cement, but sunlight pours through lace valances onto banana-yellow cinderblock walls that match the yellow shirts students wear with their plaid uniforms. Classes are often an alternative family for kids whose home life lacks structure.

LPAC's afterschool program teaches dance, media, basketball, music, and poetry. A mural dedicated to hip-hop culture-painted with bold, wall-high graffiti letters and pictures of rappers, break dancers, musicians, and DJs-covers the walls of a chapel where rival gang members from Crips and Bloods worship side by side in a service with hip-hop style.

"You can serve the Lord on Sunday and be a racist on Wednesday if you have a disconnected gospel," Rivera said-but a consistent gospel heals not just individuals but broken relationships.

Step by step

By Lynn Vincent

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, COLO.-Jan Gessele went bald this summer. Voluntarily bald, that is. Gessele, 52, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Center (PRC) here, had a "shaving party" from which she and several supportive friends emerged with "chrome domes," all in preparation for chemotherapy Gessele's doctor had prescribed to rid her body of ovarian cancer, a cancer that kills 18,000 of the 20,000 women diagnosed with it each year.

During the past half year Gessele, as she fights cancer, has continued to help PRC clients combat their fears concerning unplanned pregnancies. Her center, which serves the Roaring Fork River region near Aspen, Colo., offers free pregnancy testing, mentoring programs, childbirth instruction, post-abortion support, and material help for the parents of babies and toddlers.

Gessele has worked with the PRC since its founding in 1985, helping to nurture a total of 14,000 women and girls through the risks of crisis pregnancies. Now comes a cancer for which she, with three grown children and no family history of the disease, had zero risk factors: "I find it not surprising and so unoriginal for the enemy to give me cancer in my reproductive system. The irony is not lost on me."

Oncologists caught Gessele's cancer at Stage 2B ("The Shakespearian stage," she quips. "You know: 2B or not to be . . . ") just after what may have been the most troubling summer in PRC history. One 14-year-old girl became a client after being gang-raped at a party and becoming pregnant. Another 14-year-old came in for a pregnancy test after having sex with her 27-year-old boyfriend. That's child molestation in Colorado, but after the test came back negative, the police refused to pursue the case, leaving Gessele pining for justice.

Finally, a Christian woman who had been a PRC client through three children divorced her husband, hooked up with another guy and, with his encouragement, began offering sex for money. "Those things were so much more difficult for me than being diagnosed with cancer," said Gessele. "These people matter so much to me."

The first three rounds of chemo were hard-"I would sleep for 15 minutes then get up for 30 minutes, then go back to sleep again"-but she has still seen the PRC through the opening of a satellite location in a nearby town and, beginning this month, the offering of free ultrasounds to clients. She faces more chemotherapy next month, followed by tests to determine whether the treatments napalmed the cancer.

If it does, Gessele said, she'll trust God to reveal the next step: "And I will continue living until I'm not living anymore. Then, of course, the living really begins."

One of their own

By Alisa Harris

EASLEY, S.C.-When Philip and Melissa Johnson, the parents of eight children, volunteered to open their home temporarily to a disabled Russian orphan, an organization sent them a photo of 15-year-old Misha Bunitskiy. His hands were twisted towards his body. His elbows were locked straight. His arms were so fragile that you could close your fingers around them. His feet and legs were so mangled he had to walk on his knees.

But a friend told them, "He looks just like one of your children," and since Misha came to the Johnsons' home two months ago, he's become like one of their own. At first Misha had a breakdown if he spilled a drop of food. He was self-conscious about his deformities, especially his feet, until once when Melissa felt an impulse to kiss them. He started to cry, grabbed her in a hug and said, "Mom, I love you!"

It was a breakthrough, Melissa said: "I guess he felt that I had accepted something he's been rejected for." Misha's mother saw his crooked body and abandoned him at birth. Now the Johnsons hope to adopt Misha so he can stay after he completes his medical treatment and recovery. He is with them under the auspices of International Guardian Angels Outreach, a Christian organization that places disabled Russian orphans in temporary foster care while they get medical treatment.

There have been challenges-Misha hates American food and has to break habits he learned in the orphanage, where he smoked and drank-but he has bonded with the Johnson family. "He loved the children," Melissa said. "He really loved me. . . . He came up to me like he wanted to sit in my lap and I just grabbed him and hugged him, and he'd never had that before." He's a mix of strength and vulnerability, Melissa said-brave but terrified of pain.

Misha has already undergone a double amputation at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville, S.C. He'll get a prosthesis and if he chooses, surgery to unlock his arms and fix his hands. For Misha to stay after his recovery is over, the adoption will have to go through before he turns 16 on May 9. Melissa hopes that happens, and that this adoption is part of a bigger one: "The bigger goal is to adopt him into the Lord's family. And you know, that's the reason we do this."

Alisa Harris, Susan Olasky, Lynn Vincent, and Marvin Olasky
Alisa Harris, Susan Olasky, Lynn Vincent, and Marvin Olasky

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