Jessica Krause Wuerffel ’97 spent some of the first hours of her Calvin career at StreetFest, the college’s introduction to service-learning for first-year students.
Those four hours she spent working in inner-city Grand Rapids changed her life.
“I never had so much enthusiasm as I did doing work for other people,” she said. “The simplest thing, like doing yard work, made such a difference to me.”
Wuerffel came to Calvin intending to major in music; she left with a degree in social work.
Living in the Lakeview area of New Orleans, Jessica and Danny Wuerffel recently had their lives turned upside down. Desire Street Ministries, to which she and her husband have committed their efforts for the past seven years, is in the city’s devastated 9th Ward.
Speaking from Destin, Fla., Wuerffel recalled the recent experience: “I just knew this was it,” she said. “When you live in a bowl 6 feet underground, you know that some day God is going to take it back. We took with us what we needed, said goodbye to our house, and, with our son, Jonah, and our dog, we climbed into our car and left.”
The Wuerffels evacuated first to southeastern Louisiana, then to Mississippi and finally to Florida, Danny’s home state, where they are temporarily relocated.
Since the evacuation, the Wuerffels have seen photos of their home, which is almost completely submerged, and their ministry equally devastated.
“We knew the Desire Street area was in trouble,” she said. “It’s one of the lowest points in the city. As for our house — except for some photographs, our video camera and some vital papers — we lost everything.”
Wuerffel describes the situation very matter-of-factly. “I’m totally fine with it,” she said. “You know whether here or in Florida, you’ve built your house on sand, and God can take it back at any time.”
While their house may have been on shaky ground, the Wuerffels’ passion for their ministry remains rock solid.
“We have no special tie to New Orleans other than our ministry,” she said. “We’ll definitely go back if the ministry goes back.”
That ministry is located in and around the Desire housing project, ranked among the worst places to live in the United States.
“It’s been on and off at the top of the list as the murder capital of the U.S.,” said Wuerffel. “It’s an interesting place to find a small-town girl from Ohio.”
But then, most of the locales Wuerffel has been placed in her life are out of the ordinary, she said.
Growing up in Bryan, Ohio, in a family of nonbelievers, Wuerffel heard about Calvin College and decided to visit.
“A friend of mine had gone to Calvin, and I knew it had a good music program,” she said. “When I came I liked what I saw, so I applied.”
In addition to StreetFest, Wuerffel participated in service projects during spring break and stayed in Benton Harbor, Mich., for two summers to continue her service work.
“I got the message at Calvin that my job was not to sit where I am; my job was to take my Christianity to other people. I knew then that I wanted to give the poor reasons to smile, something to alleviate their pain,” she said.
After her graduation in 1997, she went to work for AmeriCorps-VISTA, the national version of the Peace Corps, for which she helped establish a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.
It was here that Wuerffel’s life took another abrupt turn.
“I had a friend here who wanted to introduce me to an NFL football player,” she said. “I never watched college football, and he was a rookie, so I had no idea who he was. Looking back I should have known. There are signs all around Destin; in fact, there’s a road named after him.”
Danny Wuerffel quarterbacked the University of Florida Gators to the national championship in 1996 and was presented with the Heisman Trophy, the highest honor awarded to a college football player.
“I didn’t want to date him,” she said. “My friend told me that Danny was a Christian playing in the NFL, and I assumed his faith was just hearsay. I had never heard of a real Christian in the NFL, and I was very committed to living on a moderate to low income. None of that fit well with the NFL player stereotype.”
Wuerffel soon found out her assumptions were wrong. In fact, living in New Orleans, Danny Wuerffel had already become involved with Desire Street Ministries.
The Rev. Mo Leverett and his wife, Ellen, established Desire Street Ministries in 1990. Leverett’s vision was to “create an incarnational ministry focused on indigenous leadership development that would result in a new church.”
The result was the formation of Desire Street Fellowship, a church plant that encompasses the spiritual development component of the mission.
In the past 15 years, the mission grew to include community development initiatives in the areas of health, housing, economic development, education and recreation.
“Danny has a real heart for inner-city ministry,” she said. “He had received a brochure about Desire Street Ministries, and he just started hanging out down there.”
Jessica and Danny married a year after they met.
Despite trades to the Rhein Fire (NFL Europe), Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins, the Wuerffels kept returning to Desire Street in New Orleans.
Upon retiring from the NFL after seven years, Danny Wuerffel became director of development for Desire Street Ministries; Jessica volunteers more specifically for Desire Street Academy, a private Christian school for boys in grades seven to 12.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the couple worked to find a temporary location to hold school and to locate the 192 students who were displaced.
Desire Street Academy reopened Oct. 3 as a boarding school at Camp Timpoochee in Niceville, Fla. As of early October, the Wuerffels were still trying to locate students and shuttle them to the substitute campus.
“We’re hoping to get 100 to 120 of our students back,” Jessica Wuerffel said. “For now we’ll stay with the school because it’s the only thing from Desire Street up and functioning right now.”
Plans are to run the academy in Florida through May.
“We’re feeling a bit nomadic,” said Wuerffel. “In a way it’s kind of exciting because you just have to sit back and say, ‘Huh, I wonder what God wants us to do now.’ For now, we don’t have a clue what comes next.”
— Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark
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