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Helping hands

Hurricane Katrina changed the lives of residents on the Gulf Coast, but it also changed the lives of Christians partnered with them to help.

Tatania Riley, 26, sits on a child-sized chair in a classroom in Austin's JJ Pickle Elementary School and talks about the journey that put her on a Texas-bound plane at the New Orleans Airport a week after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Ms. Riley knew better than to try to ride out the storm at her duplex in the Algiers section of New Orleans. She'd had the forethought to reserve three rooms at a hotel on higher ground for herself, her three children, and neighbors. She had all her important papers in a box and several outfits for each child, including diapers for the baby, Jania.

As the storm raged, blowing out windows in the hotel and forcing the residents in the 15-story building to huddle in the hallways on the lower floors, they celebrated her 10-year-old daughter Breeon's birthday with a zebra cake. The next morning the sun came out, the nearby streets were dry, and Ms. Riley and her friends headed home. Their houses had survived but were without electricity and air conditioning.

For three days they slept outside where it was cooler and grilled food from the deep freeze as it thawed. But when the food ran out, Ms. Riley and her friends scrounged gas and headed to Jefferson Parish to get in line for a bus to take them to the rescue point on Interstate 10. It took three more days of sleeping outside before a nurse saw Ms. Riley holding Jania, who'd been drinking nothing but water and was so dehydrated that she was wetting only one diaper a day.

Soon the family was on a helicopter to the airport, where Jania received "some Pedialyte and stuff" before they all boarded that Austin-bound plane and eventually ended up at the Hearthside, a former extended-stay hotel on the edge of Austin's St. John neighborhood, a poor one filled with ramshackle frame houses and trash-strewn lots.

On Wednesday, Sept. 7, Karen Parchman began her fifth day on the job at Community New Start (CNS), a Christian community renewal ministry in St. John. That's when she learned about nonprofit Foundation Communities, which owns the Hearthside, welcoming on a temporary basis about 300 Katrina evacuees, including 43 children, into the hotel's 118 rooms. Ms. Parchman visited the hotel and told Foundation Communities, "We are a ministry in the neighborhood and want to help"-but she did not then know what that would entail.

Ms. Parchman's first thought was to connect the children to Smart Start, a free after-school program run by CNS in three neighborhood schools, including JJ Pickle, where most of the children from Hearthside, including Breeon, were enrolled (see sidebar). But evacuees needed much more than that: Most of the adults were poorly educated and had been unemployed in New Orleans. They needed longer-term help to get settled into Austin.

Foundation Communities set up a case-management plan for the residents to hook them up with services and asked CNS to provide basic material assistance such as backpacks, school supplies, household goods, and toiletries for residents-but many church contributors wanted to do more than just give stuff. CNS and various evangelical churches developed the Katrina Partners program, with groups throughout Austin using training materials pulled together by CNS community coordinator Allen Weeks.

A former missionary, high-school teacher, and track coach, Mr. Weeks moved into St. John five years ago, even though his best friend told him he could get killed or robbed in the neighborhood. Mr. Weeks, a soft-spoken marathon runner who then worked at Apple Computer as an educational consultant, could have afforded other neighborhoods, but he says, "I looked at the neighborhood as fun, in the sense that this is going to be a vibrant place to live."

He bought a run-down duplex to rehab, living in one half and renting out the other. Three years ago when CNS adopted a community renewal model that emphasized tackling poverty and crime a block at a time while building a network of relationships, it hired Mr. Weeks to be a community coordinator. Now he and his wife of two years, Julie, work closely with about 15 families. "It's hard to do things in big, giant pieces," Mr. Weeks said. "But if you break it down . . . it's really very effective."

In 2004, on the day their first baby, Ashley, was born, the Weekses closed on a modest limestone house on Meador Avenue, just down the block, and well within hearing range of the shrieks rising from the playground at Pickle Elementary. The house's small yard is bordered by flowerbeds and posted with a sign, "We Care."

Three doors down on the corner sits an abandoned house surrounded by a collapsing chain-link fence. Piles of battered couches and rotting mattresses litter the overgrown lawn, and sheet metal covers the windows. The corner lot belongs to the Neighborhood Housing Authority of Austin, a local nonprofit with a federal grant to provide low-income housing. "They're nice people," Mr. Weeks says of the corner lot owners. "But they're not in the neighborhood. That's the difference."

The material Mr. Weeks developed for training church partners was influenced by his work in foreign missions and by the experience of churches in resettling refugees. It emphasizes cultural sensitivity and teaches volunteers to listen and help their partners rather than to control them. CNS matches teams of variously gifted volunteers with Hearthside families after both sides of the partnership submit to background checks. CNS asked for initial commitments of four to six weeks, although most of the partnerships are ongoing-except when the evacuees have moved back to New Orleans or on to other cities.

By the end of November about 200 church volunteers-Ms. Parchman describes them as "a couple of counselors, corporate types, pastors with small groups, moms, white-collar people, a couple of retirees"-had worked with about fifty evacuees. The work of the partnerships depends on "what families think they can take on," Ms. Parchman says: "Some have secured scholarships for college. Some stood in line at FEMA with their families."

The church partners let the Hearthside residents take the lead in determining their needs. For many families, obtaining reliable transportation was a priority. One volunteer team located via the internet a reasonably priced car in San Antonio. After paying to have the car inspected, several team members drove their partner down to pick it up.

Other volunteer partners have helped with budgeting, which may seem a higher priority to them than to Hearthside residents: At a budgeting workshop held at the hotel only two residents showed up. Others have offered transportation, helped locate permanent housing, or found furniture. No matter what form the practical help takes, Ms. Parchman says the goal is the same: to help the evacuees "integrate into our community and show the love of Jesus Christ."

Tatania Riley has had a hard life. She's the oldest of four siblings abandoned by their mother as infants: "My mom left me on the project porch when I was 6 months." Shuffled from one foster home to the next, Ms. Riley explains that she was raped at 13 and infected with the HIV virus. At 16 she got pregnant because "I wanted something I knew no one could take from me." She now has about $15,000 to $20,000 in credit-card debt.

Sitting at Pickle Elementary Ms. Riley explains that she takes three kinds of medicine for her HIV, with one of the prescriptions costing $900 a month. Although her medicine is now paid for, she also worries about Breeon, who is pretty and looks more like 14 than her age of 10. Then Breeon's Smart Start teacher walks past and Ms. Riley jumps up to greet her. Gloomy thoughts about her future seem to disappear as she eagerly describes a recent dinner she'd had at the teacher's house. What made the greatest impression? "It was my first time ever sitting at a table, eating and talking."

In December, children around the country begin dreaming of a white Christmas, an event that almost never happens in Austin, Texas. But on Dec. 8 the schools closed because some roads were icy. The children of Pickle Elementary stayed inside watching TV and playing video games, but on nearby Providence Street a lanky African-American man, Ralph Taylor, came outside to check on a stranger taking pictures of houses in the neighborhood.

Mr. Taylor said his great-grandparents were some of the first homeowners in St. John, moving to the neighborhood in 1939. They bought their lot for $50 and by mule hauled in wood to build the home; the great-grandmother lived there until 1999. He has seen the neighborhood decline, but he's not giving up. While cooking fried chicken in his small kitchen, he talked about the four-unit housing development, dedicated to these forebears, that his uncle plans to build next door on his grandmother's property. "I want to keep my community alive," he said. "I want to keep my community alive."

Off to a smart start

On a breezy afternoon in November, a Smart Start class files outside for playground time. Among the seven pre-K students, Marco sports an Indian headdress with bright red and blue paper feathers. Nicole is busy licking the icing off her Thanksgiving cupcake. Makayla bounces along at the back of the line, simply ready to play.

JJ Pickle Elementary School in east Austin hosts the Smart Start after-school program sponsored by Community New Start. Staffed by teachers and parent volunteers, the Smart Start program offers tutoring, organized recreation, and biblical instruction for students in grades pre-K through 8. For example, in the pre-K class one day each child took turns reciting Psalm 100, complete with hand motions and sound effects ("We are His people, the sheep of His pasture-baaa!"). Makayla went first, performing the chapter with a dimpled grin and flawless choreography.

To Chris Plummer, executive director of Community New Start, the biblical curriculum is key to the mission of Smart Start. Parents are "desperate for it," he said. "They want their kids to be taught Christian values." Parents of Smart Start students sign a release form acknowledging that their children will learn Bible lessons. But they recognize the academic rewards of the program as well: During the 2003-2004 school year the academic and behavioral evaluations of the average Smart Start student improved by nearly a letter grade.

In 2002, CNS founded the Smart Start program with only 20 students. Currently 160 are enrolled. By enlisting the help of St. John parents and local college students, CNS keeps program costs down. Smart Start's four-day-a-week program costs $840 per student, compared with $2,000 to $3,000 per student in the average government-funded program; funding comes from grants and contributions.

Innovative faith

In What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? (InterVarsity, 2005), Oxford's Jonathan Hill explains, among other things, how early Christians developed a new way of helping the poor.

WORLD What was the Roman Empire's "annona" system of welfare, and how did Christians turn it around?

HILL At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from northern England to Mesopotamia. Rome itself had a million inhabitants. All those people ate a lot! The "annona" system was designed to cater for their needs. It involved importing food from the fertile regions-primarily Egypt-to the populous regions-primarily Italy. 18,400 tons of grain were shipped out of North Africa every year, and the arrival of the grain shipments from Alexandria in northern harbors was always a great event.

Although the system was meant to ensure that no one went hungry, there was little attempt to distribute the food according to need. Everyone was entitled to a handout simply by virtue of being Roman. It was not until the fourth century, when the church became a major element of Roman society, that the ideal developed of helping the poor in particular, simply because they were poor. Bishops such as Basil of Caesarea delivered impassioned sermons urging the rich to open their storehouses in times of famine, and people listened to them.

WORLD What were the xenodocheia, and how many were there? What was a ptocheion?

HILL These were, in effect, the first real public welfare system. Xenodocheia or "houses for strangers" were hostels for foreigners, while ptocheion were "poor houses." These hostels and hospitals were set up by the church in the fourth century in an attempt to help the poor who had been overlooked by the state. At this time, there was a substantial underclass throughout the empire of people who were not exactly homeless but who were living very close to the edge. The xenodocheia and the like provided a safety net for them, as well as a place for widows, orphans, and the chronically ill. They proved so successful that when the emperor Julian tried to reinstate paganism in the 360s, he ordered the building of pagan xenodocheia, thinking it shameful that the Christians should have a monopoly on them! The institution survived the downfall of Rome, and by the early Middle Ages every town of any size would have had one.

WORLD What did Ambrose (who became bishop of Milan in 374) think would show pagans that Christianity was superior to their worldview?

HILL Ambrose was a brilliant man who always knew how to win a crowd and give them something to remember. But he was deeply concerned with how to live a good life. He believed that the thing which distinguished Christians from pagans was the way they lived. Christians should live by higher standards than other people, and in his sermons he stressed this again and again. It was not a new idea. Tertullian, writing in around a.d. 200, observed that the difference between philosophers and Christians was that the former talked about living a good life while the latter actually did it. The Christians' high moral standards had always set them apart, and one of the problems facing Ambrose and others in the fourth century was how to keep things that way now that Christianity was officially tolerated and many people were flocking to the church.

WORLD Should the church today apply aspects of early Christianity's poverty-fighting strategy to modern society in the United States, the U.K., and New Zealand?

HILL A key difference between the fourth-century world and today is that today, at least in theory, government does much more. There exist welfare institutions and other organizations which are designed to help the poorest in society and provide a safety net. In the fourth century, there was hardly anything, so the church stepped in and more or less invented such systems from the ground up, from free hospitals to free legal advice. That was a major factor in the change in attitudes which has led to the greater function of governments today.

Becky Perry

Becky Perry