Still in the Wake
by Maxwell A. Quinn

Months have gone by, and the Big Easy is slowing uncurling itself, stretching into what it had been - and more.

Much of what had been New Orleans is returning. The infrastructure, swept away by the surge of waves and the ripping of the levee, is being rebuilt. And still scattered throughout the United States are some of the evacuees - those who are waiting to go home.

“...every morning it got harder to turn right.”

One of those waiting to go home is Danny Wuerffel, former NFL quarterback and winner of the 1996 Heisman Trophy as a senior playing for the University of Florida Gators.

And while he waits, Danny is doing the work he has been called to do - serving as Vice-President for Desire Street Ministries.

Danny's involvement with Desire Street Ministries began with a brochure. He was intrigued with the story of a white guy from Georgia who moved into the Desire neighborhood in 1990 - a neighborhood once rated among the worst in the country - and began a ministry to kids.

Throughout Danny's football travels - he played with the Saints, the Bears, the Packers and the Redskins in the NFL as well as one season in Europe - he always came back to New Orleans, and Desire Street Ministry.

And in February of 2004, after a seven year NFL career, Danny officially retired and entered into full-time ministry at Desire Street. For Danny it was simply a matter of turning left, rather than right. From his home, Danny would travel down Canal Street. "I would turn right to go to practice, and left to go to the ministry. And every morning it got harder to turn right."

It was Danny's job to raise funds for the expansive Desire Street Ministries, an endeavor centered around the Desire neighborhood, focusing on education, health, housing, economic development and recreation for the people of the area. Like most non-profits, Desire Street Ministries was dependent primarily on the monies donated by those who believed in the work - whether they were in New Orleans or Maine or Washington. There were times when things were tight.

And then Katrina hit.

“We learned the difference between want and need.  And those two get confused.”
The Wuerffel's home was by the 17th Street Canal that tore open, pouring its contents into the area, inundating the neighborhood with 10-12 feet of water, and filling the Wuerffel home with 8.

By the time the levee broke, the Wuerffels were on their way to Natchez, Mississippi. "We drastically under packed. We took a few pictures, a few changes of clothes, dog kennels, pillows and one car." It was Danny, his wife Jessica, his son Jonah, and the dog. 

From Natchez they went to Danny's parent's home in Florida.

It was there, in Florida, they discovered they had lost virtually everything, but had gained a sense of gratitude for what remained. "We felt so blessed," Danny says. "We had each other, we had food, and we had a place to stay. 

"We learned the difference between want and need. And those two get confused."

In the midst of all the upheaval, the Wuerffels found something more than they had even imagined. "Everything was turned upside down," Danny says, "There were times I've never been more physically, emotionally and mentally drained. At the same time, I've never felt more spiritually alive and delighted to be in the presence of God.

"I was reading the Psalms, and I could relate to David. God was my hiding place. I found myself using similar words to what I had used before, but I felt them so much more deeply.

“I played and cried for an hour.”
"The most dramatic moment came one morning at 5:30, when I couldn't sleep. I went to the church and started playing the piano, playing old hymns. There was one...the words were ‘His oath, His covenant, His blood; support me in the whelming flood...' I played and cried for an hour."

Of course, Desire Street Ministries was wiped out by Katrina. Its people, the neighborhood, the resources - all gone. Its staff was scattered across the country. And the kids it served? They were in the Superdome, or swimming in water over their heads, trying to rescue grandparents and cousins and aunts. 

But like New Orleans itself, Desire Street Ministries is rebuilding. Currently operating as Desire Street Academy, a boarding school in Destin, Florida, the plans are for a return to Louisiana.   

Danny calls the temporary relocation of the school to Florida "miraculous." In New Orleans, Desire Street Academy had not operated as a boarding school, serving the children who lived in the immediate neighborhood. But with so many kids displaced, a boarding school approach provided immediate answers - not only for education but for shelter.   So staff and some 80 kids moved to Florida, and opened the school.

While the school is doing well, everyone involved still has a heart for New Orleans. New Orleans is home - for kids and staff as well. And as miraculous as the move to Florida has been, there is still the desire to return home.

The issue with returning to New Orleans isn't so much a question of facilities. The Desire Street facility was cinder block, concrete and steel, and can be cleaned up, but the neighborhood surrounding it is gone. It's difficult to provide a service to people when there are no people.

“It’s so neat to see America respond – particularly the churches...a testimonial to the way things should be.”
And yet, the long-term goal is still a return to New Orleans, and Desire Street. Property has been found in Baton Rouge, and there is some thought to providing programs in Baton Rouge while waiting for New Orleans to be rebuilt.

And, in the meantime, Danny Wuerffel marvels at the journey of his life, the generosity of the American people, and the presence and providence of God.

"I've been overwhelmed," Danny says, "At the outpouring of love and generosity and support that has poured from people all over the country. One of the biggest joys and logistical issues I have is managing all the help.

"It's so neat to see America respond - particularly the churches. Too often, churches get caught up in their own programs and then something like this happens, and they respond. What a testimonial to the way things should be."

Asked why Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Danny offered his thoughts. "I don't know why things happen but I have more confidence than ever that God ahs complex ways of accomplishing His purpose. In these last months I have seen, from a personal standpoint and a ministry standpoint, incredibly redemptive things happening. In the midst of devastation, I see God at work.

"You know, the word Katrina means cleansing."

The Big Easy is on its way back. And Desire Street Ministries will be there.