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Houston: A semisweet land of liberty

"Houston: A semisweet land of liberty" Continued...

The fledgling had gained wings. The center took off, largely with volunteer help: counselors, nutritionists, parole officers, and teachers of GED, ESL, karate, defensive driving, and more. She was her own janitor: “God told me, ‘You will clean every toilet until I tell you not to clean them anymore.’ Now, when someone comes to clean the toilet, I don’t look down on them. I say, ‘Praise the Lord.’”

One of Aldine’s basic problems, Bolling realized, is that “no one was teaching our kids about the world of work. They don’t have parents who work. They don’t get it in school. That’s a vast emptiness, and Satan has his best time when we leave an opening. The mom says, ‘Stay in the house. Lock the door.’ But the 10-year-old boy peeks out the window and sees people with gold hanging down, big cars, women. When he’s 12, he goes out there.”

Houston, though, is a city with fewer restrictions on pursuing opportunity than most: That encouraged Bolling to encourage teens by showing them practical alternatives that regulations, taxes, and union rules in other cities make harder to achieve. 

Bolling’s message to everyone is similar: “You have gifts and you need to use them.” Aldine residents who use the food pantry have to volunteer for two hours in return for receiving provisions: “When we started requiring this, some folks asked, ‘Who does she think she is?’ After a while people starting saying, ‘Thank you, I no longer depend on handouts.” Bolling has seen the clichéd posters that proclaim “A hand up, not a handout”: Governmental programs emphasize the latter, but Bolling accompanies every handout with a hand up.

A plaque in her office could be the motto for Houston generally: “In every community there is work to be done and in every heart there is the power to do it.”

SINGING THE TRUTH: Pizana outside her home.
Johnny Hanson/Genesis
SINGING THE TRUTH: Pizana outside her home.
CONVERSATION IN THE FOYER of City of Refuge, a south-central Evangelical Presbyterian church, continued past the scheduled starting time for Sunday morning worship. Suddenly a big voice displaying the vibrato of classical training summoned the slow into the 200-seat sanctuary, where they joined worship director Nicky Pizana in vibrant hymn-singing.

Pizana, 27, has lived since she was 6 in a little yellow wood-frame house in southeast Houston: It’s just down the street from the elementary school where her mother teaches, and close to the Baptist church in which she was baptized and “made Jesus the Lord of my life.” (Her parents were once youth pastors there.) The house now has some bullet holes, souvenirs from drive-by shootings not aimed at her family but at the drug dealer next door.

Pizana has always been a Houston commuter. She attended a magnet elementary school with an African-American majority and came out with eigth-grade science and math knowledge. She took a school bus—picked up at 6:30 a.m, home at 5 or 5:30—to attend a middle school in a western part of the city with Jewish students as well as other Hispanics. Twice each week at 6 or 6:30 she went to club soccer practices. “I’ve always been busy. … I grew up on Houston roads.” As she learned to drive, her dad “right away” took her onto the freeways.

She used those freeways for the 30-minute drive to Houston Baptist University, where she majored in vocal performance. She sang at one point with the Houston Choral Society but felt called to work in churches and reach the lost and the outcast. Now she uses the freeways to get her to youth ministry gigs where she performs as lead singer in a band, Three Point Crossing, that has been together since she was 18. She loves performing different kinds of music: “When you’re working with different groups such as hip-hop or Latin Christian artists, you’re able to take the gospel to … different audiences. All of them are the same in needing Jesus.”

Pizana is a member of Park Temple Baptist Church north of downtown, and she drives there for Wednesday evening services and for Monday evening discipling (with the three other band members) by the church’s pastor. But last July she became City of Refuge’s worship director, her “dream job at a young age” with a multiethnic congregation (and a Japanese pastor) that “is a beautiful picture of heaven.”

AUTHENTIC LIVING: Aldrich plays with her sons.
Johnny Hanson/Genesis
AUTHENTIC LIVING: Aldrich plays with her sons.
JULIE ALDRICH, 35, had an upbringing diametrically different from Nicky Pizana’s, but they’re both at City of Refuge on Sunday morning—and they both spend hours in their cars. 

Aldrich grew up in River Oaks, the Houston neighborhood four miles west of downtown that is one of the wealthiest in the United States, with home prices ranging from $1 million to more than $20 million. She’s fourth-generation Houstonian on both sides of the family, with lots of oil money in her background, and at one time her traveling was often up and down River Oaks Boulevard: expensive country club at one end, The Episcopal Church of St. John the Divine at the other. Baptized and confirmed there, she also attended St. John’s School from kindergarten through the 12th grade. 

— Houston segments on our daily radio/podcast show, The World and Everything in It, are scheduled for Feb. 19, Feb. 26, and the weeks of March 3 and March 10. You can access it through a podcast app on your phone or tablet, or by listening to the clips posted below.

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