Date: Sep 2 2005 6:02PM
Every telephone call placed this week to a number in the 504 area code has been met by the same answer, the piercing and deflation of the three-note warning and the notification that all circuits are busy now. I know that they are not busy, but rather dead. But the word "busy" has a comforting normalcy to it, and I give in for a brief moment to self-deception. Eventually, of course, my comfort response diminishes with repeat administrations, obedient little Skinner-box monkey that I am. But today I received news that pierced briefly through the haze: Mo Leverett and his family are alive and well.
I know Mo from more than ten years ago, in my more fundamentalist days, when I worked summers in his urban ministry. Mo and his new wife, operating on much faith and little money, had bought themselves a house in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, near G.W. Carver high school and the Desire housing project. Desire, before most of it was torn down, was a lesson in the law of unintended consequences for flawed social policy. A warehouse for the poor with no surrounding economic activity, it had instead become fertile soil for generational poverty, violence, and abandonment. One of those places that most large cities in America possess, where faith, hope and love don't bother knocking.
Mo is a great brick of a man, a self-described "Georgia cracker" who volunteered as a kicking coach for Carver's football team. I would not have appreciated the sisyphean nature of this task had I not watched his students in action; inner-city black children do not grow up kicking a soccer ball, so there are few "natural" kickers for their football teams. He also conducted an optional Bible study in the evenings after practice - on school grounds, no less, which I'm sure was skirting the laws, but I'm equally certain that New Orleans had many more significant skirts and laws being ignored.
Understand this about white - black interaction in the inner city: the kids at Carver were quite used to seeing white people come through their community. The operative word was "through." Many well-intentioned white people come for a time - to teach, to build homes, or for other good purpose - but eventually leave, whether due to disillusionment or just the changes that come with an accumulation of time. What marked Mo as different was that he stayed. He stayed through burglary of his home, through struggles with money, through difficulty communicating his bigger intentions, through the deaths of students dear to him. He had stayed for over fifteen years when the hurricane hit.
I doubt that any words of mine could do justice to the enormity of that last statement. Desire was a place with tombstones spray-painted on many of the buildings, memorializing those who had died prematurely. The carvings on desks in the high school, rather than dealing with who had been there or who loved whom forever, predominantly consisted of "R.I.P." and the name of whichever friend had prematurely graduated. It was a place in which people were so conditioned to violence that the kids could instantly distinguish between various forms of weapons fire by sound. When a shotgun went off a short distance away, my first reaction was to be slightly stunned; by the time I had begun to think about what to do, I looked around to find that all of the kids previously sitting beside me were already under the bleachers.
I was tutoring some of his players for classes and for their standardized tests. I sat down with four of them at the beginning of one summer day and asked them to figure out their goals: "where do you want to be in ten years? Doing what? Where do you want to live?" All looked at me in blank silence. After about a minute, one of them finally spoke, saying "we're all gonna be dead in ten years. What does it matter?" I had no real answer for his question, and I have none now. It didn't matter, as his presence gave the lie to his words. All four of them were there in the hope that defied their experience, the belief that something might one day be better. They were sixteen-year-olds studying in a sweaty classroom on a hot July day because one white person stayed.
I should be more careful not to overstate Mo's role, as there were certainly many other people involved in this ongoing project. But his presence was the gunshot to start the avalanche, to break the preceding silence. In the years that followed, as more began to find out about Mo's work, money came in for a church, a school, and a health clinic (where I had planned on working but finished my training a year too late). The first groups of college graduates, a species previously so rare and so prone to outward migration, began to come back to work with the ministry. I had not previously appreciated what an infectious illness hope can be.
This week with the storm, the lights went dark and the phones were silent, and I feared the worst. The Ninth Ward is one of the lowest areas of the city, and it usually bears the worst of any flooding that occurs there. Of all people who might leave, it did not seem likely that Mo would be among them (I still do not know, as I have news only secondhand). Days passed with the same piercing three notes, rendered in a voice more scratched with static than the usual recording. Hope faded to fear, which gave way to numbness. My city was dying, and something larger was dying with each passing day of no news.
Today, finally, I know. I know that Mo Leverett and his family are alive and well. I also know that my city is still dead, and I am no longer the unwavering believer in the Resurrection and the Life that Mo preaches in his church. And so the two wrestle within me, the doubter and the would-be saint. I want to believe, I want it like a drowning man wants his next breath. But I see the forces arrayed against hope, and I find belief slipping out the back door of the house just as I walk in through the front.
But I know. I know that Mo Leverett and his family are alive and well. And I know just as surely that he will stay (even if only after a temporary leaving), as he has stayed before. And I know that he (and perhaps the God he serves) is an avalanche-starter. And it is this knowledge that will keep me chasing belief, entering new houses and running out back doors.
Mo, if by some strange chance you are reading this (although I doubt you would be caught dead on such a lefty website), I hope that you do not recognize me by my writing. Failing that, I hope that you will forgive me if you feel that I have overstated your role and understated God's hand in the doing of these things. You are one of the people I admire most on this earth, and this little rambling was merely an expression of that - to do justice to the works of God in words is something I am no longer so sure that I am able to do.
Apologies to others for a very long post. A lot of emotions coming to the surface right now.
Go home. The movie's over. Go home.