Desire Street Ministries -- Darren Grem



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Welcome back to our contributing editor Darren Grem, currently finishing his PhD at the University of Georgia. Darren sends word that his dissertation title has changed from its previous posting. It is now called "The Blessings of Business: Christian Entrepreneurs and the Politics and Culture of Sunbelt America."
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With the passing of Katrina’s two-year anniversary, the cameras and microphones have once more left the New Orleans/Gulf Coast area. Desire Street Ministries (DSM), however, plans to stay.

Musician and pastor Mo Leverett shares administrative direction of DSM with Danny Wuerffel, a former Florida Gators and NFL quarterback. Both lost their homes in New Orleans and their ministry at Desire Street when Katrina hit, and both have been integral in reforming their ministry in the city’s poor and predominantly African-American Upper Ninth Ward. After Katrina flooded their Desire Street Academy and scattered their pupils and their families across the region and nation, Leverett, Wuerffel, and the DSM staff have worked to rebuild both their presence in the community along with the economic lives of those who remained or returned. Volunteer work groups from various churches have engaged in short-term trips to supplement these efforts, and thousands of dollars worth of donations have also helped fund DSM’s transition back to “normalcy.”

What makes DSM interesting is how it illustrates a social ethic informed by contemporary Protestant conservatism. Leverett is a graduate of the conservative Reformed Theological Seminary, and DSM receives its most direct support from the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) denomination. As such, DSM lines up with the PCA’s views on biblical interpretation (it affirms inerrancy) and “kingdom building” (it emphasizes the conversion of individuals as a means to socio-economic change). Yet, it remains something of an outlier when compared to the PCA’s demographic make-up (which is mostly white, professional, GOP-leaning) and, most especially, its denominational policy. Indeed, despite the attention and support granted to DSM by the PCA, their relatively close relationship has not inspired any drastic changes in the higher halls of the PCA itself. According to a PCA pastor and friend of mine, only a handful of people showed up at the denomination’s most recent General Assembly for a seminar on poverty while hundreds attended various other seminars on the finer points of neo-Reformed theology. Whether a sense of social awareness is growing among local-level PCA churches likewise remains to be seen.

Regardless, Leverett and Wuerffel’s ministry has no doubt had a vital role in the recovery experience for the Desire Street community and the New Orleans area. Their ministry is also a vital reminder of the past impact of numerous social ministries, their present impact within (or in spite of?) the framework of larger denominational, institutional, or political issues, and their future impact on the oft-forgotten corners of America.

1 comments:

Doug Thompson at: September 9, 2007 at 8:06 PM said...

At the risk of revealing my biases, Mo was a student Mercer University before Reformed T.S. He continues to stay in contact with former professors and some of them support Desire Street. Mo has been invited back to campus to speak. And students from Mercer go to teach at Desire Street Academy. I am unsure when Mo felt the impulse to help the poor, but he would have been helped along that journey by some Mercer professors who may not have agreed with his theology but supported his vision of serving the least of these. We often refer to this as the prophetic ethos at Mercer. It might help to think of Mo's response in terms of prophetic impulses within denominations. Rather than a politically liberal response to poverty, the prophets reminded the faithful of their commitment to God within the framework of the Torah, which actually moves farther back than any "conservative" political reality. In this scenario, the PCA, through its membership, is oriented in a priestly mode, which explains why more people showed up for theology seminars than poverty seminars. Both impulses are vitally important to religious life of individuals and denominations, but one impulse or the other is emphasized depending on the eye of the beholder.

Doug Thompson
Mercer University

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