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Lighting a candle in New Orleans

But for many people in and around New Orleans, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is the nightmare that won't go away. They live with it every day. The tourism on which the city relies is back, to some extent, but the people there know that New Orleans won't be the same for a long, long time to come. It would be easy in too many cases just to give up, to walk away - in Christopher language, to curse the darkness. And yet the determination, the courage, the innate goodness that God plants in each of us still manages to come through. There are people everywhere in New Orleans who may or may not think of themselves as Christophers - but they're living our motto every day, by lighting candles that defy the darkness around them.

Not long ago a story by Leslie Eaton in The New York Times brought this into clear focus. The article was about the region's health-care system, which apparently is little short of chaotic. As the story pointed out, only one of New Orleans' seven general hospitals is working at its pre-hurricane level; two more are partially open and four remain closed. Two-thirds of the city's hospital beds are gone. Many doctors appear to have simply left town; the Orleans Parish Medical Society has lost 200 of its 650 members.

But a sidebar feature held out a ray of hope: clinics have sprung up to serve the poor. All comers are welcome, and it's all free. No questions asked beyond the basics: name, address, age, and what's the problem?

The story spotlighted the work of one clinic, Common Ground, but it's typical of more than a dozen throughout the city. Those that are operating don't meet all community health needs, true; as one Common Ground volunteer noted, "We could use a hundred more." But it's there, and God bless the men and women who make it work.

They're volunteers, most of them - doctors, nurses, EMTs and others. They're there to provide free care for anyone who needs it, and as the waiting lines prove, a lot of people do. From 40 to 50 patients show up every day, most of them with stress-related conditions such as anxiety or high blood pressure. (Those who need to see a specialist or require screening of some sort are referred to the nearby St. Thomas Community Health Center, with a medical staff of four full-time doctors and six part-time specialists - most of whom are putting in time, in full or in part, on a pro bono basis.)

Common Ground relies largely on donations to keep going, and the care admittedly is minimal. As a volunteer put it, it's not the same quality that everyone is used to, and the personal connection between patient and physician tends to get lost. Common Ground and the other free clinics aren't the total answer to New Orleans' health crisis, heaven knows, but they're there, and they're doing something good. And that, friends, is in the finest Christopher tradition.

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Dennis Heaney is president of The Christophers.

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For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, "Here I Am, Lord - Serving God's People Today," write: The Christophers, 12 East 48th St., New York, N.Y. 10017; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org.

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