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A friend, employed at a Kansas City bank, told me about a wonderful and fulfilling experience last year as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. I asked him to tell me when he would do it again. He called last week to tell me that another group of volunteers, skilled and unskilled, would soon be going to work on more area homes.

Yes, I'm still interested, I told him. I hadn't yet called when a story moved out of Miami. Someone shot at Habitat volunteers in Miami, where former President Jimmy Carter was assisting in the construction of 14 low-income homes and a child-care center.Carter was among about 500 volunteers in the Habitat project in Liberty City, a predominantly black section of Miami. He was a block away when the drive-by shooting occurred while volunteers lunched under a tent.

Former New Yorker Pat Morris, 34, was slow to duck when bullets fired. He has a hole in his billed cap, less hair and quite a headache as souvenirs of the harrowing experience.

It had not been determined that Carter was the target of the person or people who fired from the blue car described by witnesses. If so, the gunman goofed. Carter, under Secret Service protection, and wife Rosalyn weren't even under the tent.

Carter typically downplayed the incident. "Sometimes when someone famous comes to an area, some people try to attract attention by creating a disturbance," he told reporters. "I'm glad no one was seriously hurt."

He then returned to work on the proj-ect which, like most Habitat efforts, will provide low-cost, interest-free houses for needy families who agree, among other things, to provide 400 hours of their time at Habitat sites.

It's interesting that Carter, whose post-presidential period includes international missions to promote peace and democracy in battle-scarred nations of Central America and Africa, had such a close call in south Florida.

But Carter, forever the diplomat, took the glare from Miami and Liberty City, scene of rioting in the 1980s. "I don't think there was any particular target. I think it was just one of those random acts of violence that happens not only in Miami but every city in the nation," he said.

Carter's post-presidency is distinguished by its humanity and genuine concern for the less fortunate. He'll roll up his sleeves and go to work on a problem, rather than groan about what others aren't doing to solve it.

If that means hammering away in a Miami neighborhood plagued by violence and despair or rebuilding other cities' urban cores, then so be it.

While former President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy were accepting $2 million in 1989 to speak in Japan for nine days, Jimmy Carter was somewhere building "sweat equity" in low-income housing.

"Americans should ask themselves what are the deeper meanings of . . . these simple words - liberty and equality - on which our ideals are based," said Carter, when honored last July with a Philadelphia Liberty Medal. He suggested we redefine those words as "freedom from deprivation and hopelessness" and "equal opportunity to a job, to health care and decent housing."

One president stood up for our principles abroad, took this country to war, wants to veto a civil rights bill and lacks a domestic agenda to give true meaning to liberty and equality.

Another president, Carter, stands up for our principles abroad and at home, even if it means toiling in the Miami sun with the trigger-happy.

Pat Morris, grazed by the bullet in the incident, said he'll return to his Habitat chores. One of these days, I'll pitch in, too.