Natchez native helps provide housing for needy

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Submitted photo — Angela Davis, left, is joined by her family for an open house at Hagar’s House in New Orleans. Pictured from left are Angela’s sister Rebecca and parents Pat and Roger Davis.

NATCHEZ — Angela Davis considers herself lucky on several accounts.

Her childhood and upbringing well prepared her for her current job, and her current job is molding her faith for the future.

In the meantime, Davis’ luck — if that’s what you want to call it — is rubbing off on others.

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Davis is the house coordinator for Hagar’s House, a safe, serene sanctuary for women and children in New Orleans.

The house provides shelter and temporary housing to women who may have previously been living on the streets. It opened after Katrina and just before the City of New Orleans closed down the tent city that had been home to many residents after the storm, Davis said.

Davis, a 1999 Natchez High School graduate, had just finished seminary and was living and volunteering at First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans.

In 2007, she was one of four volunteers from the church to open Hagar’s House in the church’s volunteer wing for women seeking emergency shelter.

It took off from there.

“The need for housing in the city was great,” Davis said in a documentary filmed by Hagar’s House cofounder Eric Gremillion.

After six months in the church’s volunteer wing, Hagar’s House moved to an actual house.

Davis said the five-bedroom house that can house up to 16 people is beautiful inside and out.

“I think when folks first come to Hagar’s House it’s not what someone expects when they come to a shelter,” Davis said. “It’s a beautiful space, and the house itself is very beautiful.”

The home was built by the church and rebuilt by volunteer labor in order to more effectively serve the residents.

Church members and house staff formed a nonprofit organization, First Grace Community Alliance, to financially sustain Hagar’s House.

“Hagar’s House was done in such a way that you want to be related to it,” the Rev. Shawn Anglim said in the documentary.

Anglim is pastor of First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans and is executive director of the nonprofit.

“It’s so powerful, and it’s so beautiful that you’re just drawn in to being a part of this place,” he said.

The nonprofit is supported by individuals, foundations and fundraisers. Seven full-time staff members work in the house and one sleeps there every night.

Davis said living and working in a communal environment at the church and through Hagar’s House has changed her.

“I had volunteered a lot, but did not have experience running a home for women and children,” Davis said. “I have learned that being creative, taking risks and working hard while living in a community can make room for the kind of life I want to live.”

Davis said several women at her home church of Parkway Baptist Church in Natchez planted the seed of service in her.

“Being around the Women on Mission group and the food pantry my mom helped start and run at Parkway Baptist Church put (volunteering) in my mind,” Davis said.

Davis said being a white student at a majority-black public school gave her a craving for a diverse experience.

“White people said a lot about public schools in Natchez,” Davis said. “I heard some things about race that didn’t match with my experience. My experience at school was rich and positive. The comments were negative and racist.”

Davis said First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans is a story of diversity in itself.

“There was an all white church and an all black church,” Davis said. “Post-Katrina, they merged and that was a drawing piece for me because it was an integrated church. I had a good experience at both school and church, but I wanted more integration. So much goodness comes out of living in a diverse community.”

The challenges faced by Davis and the staff at Hagar’s House are overcome every day.

“It’s hard figuring out different people’s needs and how to meet our own too, and so is figuring out the nonprofit world,” Davis said. “We want to maintain the small creative spirit while seeking funding. I think we’ve done a good job. We have amazing board and funding from lots of sources.”

While Davis’ experience at Hagar’s House has changed her, she said it is exciting to see the lives of the women there changed too.

“Across the board, I think that living together changes residents,” Davis said. “The residents hold each other accountable for chores and things like that. People are grateful for this beautiful place, but you can see when they are ready to move on. You also see folks who have been here longer helping folks who are just getting here, especially new moms.”

Davis said she has been lucky to work among amazing women.

“The women who live here are incredible,” Davis said. “They are strong and interesting, smart and funny. I think I am very lucky for this to be my life and spend my workdays with different types of people.”

Hagar’s House is named for a woman in the Bible who, like many of the residents, found herself in dire straights.

“I love that Hagar’s House is named from that story in the Bible,” Davis said.

In the Bible, Hagar was enslaved by Sarah and Abraham. Sarah did not think she could have children, and told her husband to have a child with Hagar.

“I highly doubt Hagar wanted to have a child. She was pregnant, they were mistreating her, so she ended up homeless in the wilderness. She comes back to have her baby, but Sarah gets pregnant herself so they kick her out. Hagar sees a well appear in desert, and the divine comes and promises survival and greatness.”

Davis said every day at Hagar’s House the modern-day story of Hagar sometimes lived out around her helps to strengthen her own faith.

“I believe that there is divinity, and it’s good,” Davis said. “And that presence in everyone and everything and being able to see that every day here helps strengthen my faith.”

Davis, who is currently in law school at Loyola Univeristy, hopes to continue working with the people of Hagar’s House and beyond.

“I am most interested in rights of the children, and gender identity rights,” Davis said. “I think in the future I would like to tie those together more.”