A Heart for the Poor and Downtrodden
July 1, 2009 - Their feet stomping and hands clapping, 90,000-plus University of Florida fans were screaming for a successful kickoff return.
by Richard Greene
But one highly regarded Florida Gator, Danny Wuerffel, was cheering for the Louisiana State University Tiger who would, along with his teammates, quickly swarm the kick returner and thwart the runback when the two football powerhouses met last season.
How could this be? Wuerffel is an icon in this neck of the woods. As quarterback, he led Florida to four conference championships and a national title—three weeks after receiving the 1996 Heisman Trophy. Then he played seven seasons with the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins before retiring in 2004 to enter full-time Christian ministry.
So here he was, back on the Florida sidelines, wildly applauding LSU freshman Deangelo Peterson for his bone-jarring tackle.
Wuerffel was rooting for a good friend.
“When Deangelo helped upend that kickoff return, I was jumping up and down like crazy because he had made it—and I don’t mean just the tackle,” Wuerffel recalled.
He was referring to Deangelo’s stirring faith journey. They met when Deangelo was a student at Desire Street Academy, a junior/senior high school serving about 110 African American males. It emphasizes academics, athletics and the arts in a Christian context.
The academy is an offshoot of Desire Street Ministries, a Christian outreach that provides for the material, educational and spiritual needs of the desperately poor.
The son of a Lutheran chaplain, Wuerffel started volunteering with DSM after witnessing this staggering need a few miles from where he played for the Saints in the Superdome. While driving past some old public housing projects in the Ninth Ward, considered one of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods, the dilapidated conditions arrested his attention.
Man, this is like a third-world country, Wuerffel thought. These should have been torn down 20 years ago.
Suddenly one day, a little girl appeared from one of the doors, carrying a doll. Wuerffel was stunned.
“It hit me that this was her home and she lived there,” he said. “This was my city. I couldn’t see that and just move on. I needed to do something.”
Wuerffel sensed God’s leading to team with DSM. Two years after his playing career ended, he was named the ministry’s executive director when its founder resigned.
DSM presents the Gospel in word and in deed—to people such as Deangelo. Like many kids, Deangelo could easily have drifted into all the wrong things on the street, Wuerffel said.
But God was at work. Deangelo had received Jesus Christ as his Savior at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp.
His faith would be tested when Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in 2005 and New Orleans’ levees broke, submerging much of the city with up to eight feet of murky water.
The Desire Street neighborhood was inundated. Most of the ministry’s property was destroyed.
Deangelo and his mother fled to a downtown hotel, living several days on the second floor. With his mother beginning to panic, Deangelo decided to brave the deep waters to escape. He carried his mother to safety.
Other students were also displaced, scattered about the region.
“We didn’t know if our students were alive,” recounted Wuerffel, who rode out the monstrous storm along with his wife, Jessica, and their young family at a friend’s house in Natchez, Miss. The Wuerffels lost their home.
“Several staff members were heroes in the days following Katrina, driving around several states finding these children,” he stated, adding that they all survived.
In Katrina’s devastating aftermath, ministry leaders questioned whether to rebuild. They prayed for God’s direction. Multiple “miracles” ensued.
The academy was able to temporarily relocate to a camp in Florida. Then it permanently moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s capital, where a piece of property surfaced, meeting the academy’s needs.
It was here, in a nurturing and uplifting environment, that God’s Word bore fruit in Deangelo’s heart. As he read and studied the Bible, interacted with other Christians and was mentored by DSM staff member Oscar Brown, he learned how to seek Christ and fix his eyes on God.
A new “Independent Living Program” has been launched to continue the mentoring and accountability after the students, like Deangelo, leave the DSA “fold.”
On another front, additional donations enabled DSM to initiate a new work in the more populated Eighth Ward, where damage was less severe. A church was planted.
Now as the ministry regains its foothold, Desire Street looks to expand its influence into other urban centers across the Southeast—and beyond. Its headquarters has shifted to Atlanta.
“Our prayer is that God will create a revival among Christians who have His heart for the poor and see suffering in their own neighborhoods and cities,” Wuerffel said.
“We want to come alongside people—filled with passion, conviction and vision—and help them develop their own ministries that will thrive well into the future,” he added.