Stephen Fairfield's restless spiritual journey brought him to the Fifth Ward, where he found true deliverance while helping to rebuild the neighborhoods

Inevitably, however, success or failure hinges on the collective will of residents and community leaders, a kind of grassroots soul that, more often than not, is born of and nurtured in the local church. Particularly in predominantly black neighborhoods, serving the community is a duty unquestioningly linked to the celebration of God. In the Fifth Ward, the indelible tradition of strong religious leadership began 70 years ago, with the founding of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church by the Reverend L.H. Simpson, the first black ever to run for a seat on Houston City Council.

Simpson's legacy of social ministry has been passed down to Pleasant Hill's current pastor, the Reverend Harvey Clemons Jr., the dapper, no-nonsense founder of the Fifth Ward CRC. Almost three-quarters of a century separates the two pastors, but their ministries are like bookends that hold the collected works of the black experience. Simpson sought to expand the boundaries of a black community in the time of Jim Crow. Today, with contempt for the poor running particularly high, Clemons is trying to save that now-diminished community.

"The one institution that we clearly own is the church," says Clemons. "It's the one institution that has shown stability and on which we've always been able to depend. We've always looked to the church to be on the cutting edge of whatever problems the community must face."

Clemons raced up to that edge, and, in the view of a few board members, jumped right over it when he suggested interviewing Steve Fairfield to run the day-to-day operations of the Fifth Ward CRC. A third-generation homebuilder and reluctant heir to a successful custom-home business, Fairfield was a logical choice to deliver much-needed technical leadership. But even he doubted his ability to overcome the odds and make a start-up nonprofit fly -- particularly in a community where his skin color automatically marks him as an outsider.

"I was confused," recalls Fairfield. "I wasn't sure I was who they really needed."

But at Clemons' urging, Fairfield agreed to be interviewed by the board, and in preparation, set out on a rainy afternoon to conduct a windshield tour of the 70-block neighborhood. For days afterward, Fairfield pondered his encounter with the streetwalker and what it said about the distance between himself and the Fifth Ward. He was pretty sure that the CRC's board was wondering, too.

"They put, in the middle of the room, one vacant chair," Fairfield says, recalling the day he interviewed for the executive director's job. "And I just knew the first question was going to be, 'Didn't we see you the other day, down on Lyons ...?' "

It's a hot, muggy dusk, and standing rainwater along the Fifth Ward's gutterless streets has spawned thousands of hungry mosquitoes. They buzz through the frame of Ava's new home in waves, pausing to feed on a moist neck or the back of a hand. Oblivious to the attack, Steve Fairfield is giving Ava a mid-construction tour, describing how the four-bedroom house being constructed by the Fifth Ward CRC will look, once the walls are up and the interior is finished. Each feature he mentions -- the breakfast nook, the laundry room, the downstairs bathroom -- is an affirmation whispered into Ava's ear. About 30, attractive and reserved, Ava is a divorced mother of three whose rent house has a hole in the roof. Her children -- ages eight, nine and 13 -- share a single bedroom. Ava's youngest has been begging her mother for a "dream house," preferably a two-story model. Her 13-year-old son wants the privacy of his own room. Ava herself is tugged in an unpleasant emotional direction each time she visits her siblings, who live in nice homes they own.

"I've done what I could," says Ava, who is a secretarial supervisor for a bank, "but we've not always lived in the nicest places."

Before long, Fairfield is pointing out the kind of design features that only homebuilders can discuss with much enthusiasm. He tells Ava that her house is built "with a lot of wood," a good, solid No. 2 grade. All along the foundation, on the sill where the framing meets the concrete slab, the boards are weatherized to seal against leaks. The flooring is glued and nailed, a method that helps minimize squeaks.

In about 60 days, when construction is completed, Ava's home will resemble in character a half-dozen others built within eyesight of her lot. Nearly every home on the block is new, and the weatherproofed siding on each is painted a light, cheery color. Large porches front many of the homes; others are rimmed by gardens and neatly trimmed lawns. Even the cramped inner-city lots contribute a bit of charm, encouraging the feeling of a bonded, stable community.

The most expensive home on Ava's block costs about $70,000, yet these are not cookie-cutter designs. In essence, they're custom homes. The buyers may be of modest means, but the Fifth Ward CRC offers them amenities they'd otherwise be unable to afford: a selection of models; choice of indoor carpet, kitchen cabinetry and bathroom tile; the option of a one- or two-car garage, the latter available with a second-floor apartment.

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