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Minister builds church beside the bayou

The Rev. Darrell Turner has a vision for his ministry in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The Rev. Darrell Turner has a vision for a new church in the Lower Ninth Ward.

I went looking for the Rev. Darrell Turner at his new church across Claiborne Avenue. Several volunteers from Global Ministries were up on step ladders and hammering sheetrock, even as French Quarter Fest was in full swing.

“Rev. Turner is in the back, singing,” an Oregon volunteer said, directing me towards the joyful song.

On my way there, I had been forced to make several detours through potholed streets, circumventing sewer construction in the sparsely populated neighborhood, but the Rev. Turner has little doubt his ministry will succeed; he believes God led him there.

“People say the Ninth Ward’s not coming back, but it’s come back,” he said decisively.

A small congregation of friends and family have been gathering at his home while renovating the building purchased for $15,000 from the Church of God and Christ.

The church building has not been occupied since Hurricane Katrina.

The church building has been unoccupied since Hurricane Katrina.

“You could see heaven” through the roof of the dilapidated structure two years ago, but by the end of June, the church will be finished and debt-free.

“We’ve got the key man - God,” Turner said.

“I’ve had hundreds of volunteers through this church from all 50 states and every walk of life,” he said. “If we could just get that concept of reaching out and helping one another in our city, we’d have an opportunity to learn from them. We are teachable human beings.”

Most of the volunteers have come from tiny towns and their mission is to "help someone else make their life whole again."

A volunteer drove 3,500 miles from Staten Island, N.Y., in a U-Haul truck to deliver solid wood pews, which are ready to be dusted off and set in place. An organ, refrigerator, air-conditioner, carpet, ceiling fans and other amenities are stashed in an Arabi storage unit - everything donated, including the manual labor. The Rev. Turner, whose day job is that of chef at the Federal Reserve Bank, is determined to make this church happen.

"I'll work as a pastor until God says stop," he said.

The Holy Cross neighborhood, a half-mile away, has been his home for 26 years, as it has for every one of his neighbors. One family owns eight houses on the block - six occupied by relatives. They all evacuated and everyone returned after the storm.

“There’s a vast feeling of unity here. That’s what makes the Ninth Ward so different,” Turner says. “What people outside the area don’t see is how neighbors take care of one another, each other’s children and the elderly.”

Holy Cross is becoming increasingly diverse with newcomers from out of state and from other parts of the city, retirees and young people, including musicians and artists, attracted by affordable real estate, the beauty of the levee and friendliness of residents.

"I've seen what God can do by uniting people from all walks of life," Rev. Turner said.

"I've seen what God can do by uniting people from all walks of life," Rev. Turner said.

“I see how it’s changing and I’m enjoying it because I see economic growth and increased diversity,” the minister said. "I've never seen color because I was raised that way."

Real change can happen when people live side by side and get to know one other, coming together for street parties and barbecues.

“I’ve seen people ride bikes together, work together. They’re embracing one another as a culture.”

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]