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

"I hate it, and I missed him," Al says of the day Steve left the company. "But with all the stuff that was going on with the Houston economy ...."

In reality -- and in his heart, Al probably knows it -- it wasn't the economy or a failure to appreciate the rewards of building houses that dissatisfied his son. There had always been a "goodness" about his son and an honest desire to spread it around. But his empathy for suffering was beyond that required to develop real estate, and it was only a matter of time before Stephen Fairfield would heed his calling.

"He is very bright and philosophical, and he always got along with people," Al says. "I seriously thought he'd be in the ministry; I thought he'd be reaching more people."

"What's this all about?" asked the judge, peering down from the bench. "You don't look like my normal group of defendants."m On February 1, more than 50 evangelical Christians appeared in a Washington, D.C. courtroom for arraignment on charges of illegal protest. The group was arrested shortly before Christmas, when, in the midst of last year's maddening budget debate, they marched into the Capitol and started praying. They were singing when two doors off to the side swung open and a double line of police officers surrounded them.

Not that things were likely to escalate. A group of schoolchildren witnessed the event, and cheered the demonstrators as they were led out of the Capitol. Steve Fairfield was arrested by an excited officer making his first collar.

The demonstration was organized by a consortium of clergymen, theologians and activists, mostly from northeastern states. Even before last winter's budget impasse, some had been openly critical of the Christian Coalition, which professes to unite all God-worshipping Americans under a single political and social agenda. Fairfield joined the protest when the Republican-led Congress proposed to pull the plug on federal housing aid. In February, a D.C judge sentenced the group to time served -- about five hours.

"Our central message to the conservatives was, 'We think it's appropriate for government to be involved in crafting a safety net for the poor. We don't want to see it clipped away,' " Fairfield explains. "To the liberal community, we wanted to say, 'Don't over-bureaucratize the system. There is room for change.' "

Fairfield pays a price for his sense of balance. He has a Republican pedigree but considers himself an independent. He's opposed to abortion and acknowledges a moral obligation to accept a reading of scripture that condemns homosexuality. Other than that, Fairfield has worked at trying to remain above the rigidity and intolerance that sometimes passes for Christian values. In the past few years, his brief vacations have been, more often than not, sojourns to the seminary.

Fairfield has studied with great interest the sermons and writings of Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century revivalist who triggered a bitter doctrinal dispute by advocating the Great Awakening. The movement encouraged the then-radical notion of a religious spirit of democratic values. The doctrine eventually led to missionary work with the American Indians.

Edwards' essay "Christian Charity" is considered the definitive argument on behalf of a socially conscious religion, striking down, one by one, the common excuses we use to turn our backs on the poor. Fairfield struggled mightily with the gap between Edwards' reasoned discussion of moral obligation and the support of so many Christians for a political agenda that sometimes seems to go out of its way to demonize the less fortunate.

"If you say you're a Christian, prove it by what you do," he says. "The Book of James talks about a 'pure and undefiled religion' being one that cares for 'the widow, the orphan and your fellow man.' "

Fairfield found the courage of his convictions in 1992, after Pat Buchanan's notorious address at the Republicans' national convention in Houston. He put a Clinton/Gore bumper sticker on his car, which became a symbol of betrayal among his evangelical friends until an elder in his former church scratched it away.

"They thought I had lost my salvation," he says. "But I just wanted to engage my Christian friends in a discussion. I was just so frustrated by that election. You can acknowledge things like abortion and gay rights theologically, and still reach out to people. But everyone was so adamant, and there seemed to be so little genuine reflection."

Fairfield ended up voting for Clinton, but, by then, what his Christian friends thought was unimportant. They had become like so many people who charged into the inner city, only to leave in anger, cursing the people they'd come to help. Fairfield left that all behind when he gave up his rent house in Bellaire and moved into an unfinished warehouse in a rugged part of the Fifth Ward.

But each Sunday, Fairfield hears in the sermons of the Reverend Harvey Clemons a reminder to remain humble before the Lord -- particularly when the pastor chooses to address the question "The True Church, or Community of Good?"

"Do we want to be a community-development corporation with a chapel where folks who are disgruntled come to visit on occasion? Or do we want to be a church with a successful outreach ministry?

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