by Katie Delp
Early in my ministry career, I heard a veteran urban pastor say, “If you don’t have fifteen years to give to a neighborhood, don’t even start.” My 23-year old self couldn’t hardly wrap my mind around that statement, yet is resonated with me.
This month marks 15 years of living on Atlanta’s south side for me, and I’ve been reflecting on my time in South Atlanta. Most of the people I started this journey with have since moved on. And there are others who have joined in the good work over the years. My husband and I often joke that we are either committed or crazy for having stayed so long. I think it’s a bit of both.
When people learn how long I’ve lived in the neighborhood, they often ask, “How has the neighborhood changed since you started?” It’s easy to focus on the strides of our programs and ministries over the year. I can point them to the 120 homes constructed in our neighborhood. I can give them tours of the businesses we’ve started. Or I can introduce them to dozens of residents who choose to live an intentional life as neighbors in South Atlanta. While we are proud of the hard work transforming our community, the changes I’ve witnessed have been more than programmatic.
I met Joel and Devron when they were about 7 years old. Both where the youngest sons of friends who were living as intentional neighbors. I worked with, worshiped with, and spent hours upon hours with their families.
Joel and Devron both attended the after-school program we led in the early years of our work. I’ve had the privilege of watching both of these young men grow up in our summer camps, after-school programs, and youth groups. They have both worked at Community Grounds, and now they are both thriving college students.
My 8-year old son, Sam, recently attended our neighborhood youth group for the first time. He was thrilled to finally be old enough to attend with other kids on our block. Sam came home all smiles with stories of rowdy group games and youthful Bible study. He told me right away that Joel was there, leading the group.
Last month, Devron sat in my office, sharing his heart to lead our summer camp programs. We strategized together ways for him to take on more leadership of this program that impacted him as a child. I know he will be great because Devron is my own first text message when I need a babysitter. My kids absolutely adore him. (Their affection is only partially explained by his willingness to play video games for much longer than me.)
So what is the biggest change in my fifteen years of ministry? The change is that the kids I once led are now leading my kids. Those sweet 8-year old boys of fifteen years ago are now role models for my 8-year old. And I couldn’t be more grateful.
Listening to that veteran pastor, I had no idea what a 15 year commitment entailed. And walking alongside one neighborhood for over a decade hasn’t been without its challenges. But there is nothing more encouraging than the gift of watching a new generation take the lead. Years of time spent tutoring math, dreaming of a grocery store, and laughing around the table at church potlucks has blossomed into a beautiful present.
And I am glad I am here to see it.