The liquor store that once blighted the South Atlanta neighborhood is gone. Our ministry bought the building and closed it down. Architectural plans have now been drawn to convert the facility into a charming row of retail shops with a spacious multi-use community center in the rear. Recently neighbors and friends turned out for an emotional groundbreaking celebration to witness the beginning of construction. They now proudly refer to it as The Gateway Building. But there is a problem. Abdella, a Muslim merchant, operates a poorly stocked grocery store in one of the three deteriorated storefronts of the building. His lease does not expire until January of 2003 and he is unwilling to move. We have offered to buy out the remainder of his lease, even assist him in relocating, but he has been adamant about staying right where he is - squarely in the middle of the construction site. In reviewing our legal options, we discovered that the lease is in his brother-in-law's name and that it specifically states that the space cannot be sub-let without the written consent of the owner. Abdella is in violation of the lease. We have legal grounds to evict.
Our attorney has issued a notice of cancellation of the lease and has ordered Abdella to vacate the premises. Abdella's attorney has countered that this is only a technicality and that we must stop "threatening and harassing" his client. Our counsel assures us that the law is on our side but advises us that it could end up being a long and costly court battle. Binding arbitration, which is specified in the lease, could take six months or more.
We warned Abdella that sitting in the middle of a construction site would compromise the security of his space. And sure enough, the first night after groundbreaking his store was broken into and looted. This angered him but only seemed to stiffen his determination to hold his ground. Our construction team, frustrated by the delay, has returned to the drawing board to figure out how the building can be renovated around him. Asbestos must be abated in Abdella's space and that can't be done without disrupting his business. The city won't issue the permit for the next phase of renovation until all hazardous materials are removed from the building. Construction estimates are escalating. The legal option seems our only reasonable recourse.
I struggle to suppress ugly stereotypes. The September 11th attack does not help. Abdella's offer to leave for a cash buy-out six times the amount of his remaining lease was as extortionistic as it was ridiculous. My reaction to his burglary was hardly charitable. I am ashamed to admit that I secretly wished the break-ins would keep happening until he gives up and leaves.
My spirit is troubled. This is not the way the followers of Christ are supposed to act or feel. At the breakfast table the other morning as Peggy and I were reading a daily devotional, Peggy asked me what I knew about Abdella on a personal level. I confessed that I knew almost nothing - nothing of his family, his history, his country of origin. Peggy's gentle questioning encouraged me to consider the potential benefits of seeing him as a person rather than an adversary to overcome. A respectful conversation over a cup of coffee might lead to a different outcome. Respect. That word kept replaying in my mind.
Bob Allen (FCS board member in charge of the renovation) and I decided to drop by the construction site to pay Abdella a visit. We agreed as we walked across the parking lot toward the dingy store that we would attempt to be as conciliatory as possible. Peggy's word "respect" was still running through my mind. Abdella appeared wary when we entered. Coming out from behind a bullet-proof cage, he led us to the rear of his store and motioned for us to sit down at a table next to a defunct walk-in freezer. The business, he said, was his only source of income and with a house payment and two children in college he needed the uninterrupted income. There was no point in our bringing up the subject of his moving out. Avoiding any reference to the legal issues, we ventured into a surprisingly positive discussion of the renovation process and the new life that was stirring in the neighborhood. I spread out a professionally created master plan that features 300+ new homes and a new business center for the community. Abdella seemed genuinely interested. We talked of the vision to convert the liquor store building to an attractive landmark that would grace the neighborhood. This Gateway Building, the community's most visible structure at its most trafficked intersection, would soon serve the needs of neighbors. Abdella immediately observed that a well-stocked, competitively priced grocery store would be a real benefit to the community. Bob and I agreed. If he were to start attending the South Atlanta Civic League meetings, build relationships with neighbors, stock the foods they need, his store could become a true community store. I liked what I was hearing.
An hour flew past and by the time Bob and I got up from the table we had a new friend. Abdella shared our excitement about the rebirth of South Atlanta and wanted to be part of it. He had suggested ways we could accomplish our mutual goals even during the construction process. He offered to close his store if need be while the asbestos is being removed. He would be pleased to move into smaller space to help facilitate the renovation. He would like to have a longer term lease if in fact the neighbors embraced him and supported him with their business, an option we would have a year to consider. Abdella had even risked sharing with us some very personal things, like the painful accusations that had been leveled at him since the September 11th terrorist attack. He was proud to be an America citizen, he proclaimed to us, proud to have his own business and be able to support his family.
The sweet sounds of crashing sledgehammers and metal cutting saws reverberated through the building as Bob and I walked back to the parking lot. A front-end-loader scooped up heaps of debris and emptied them into a large construction dumpster. What a remarkable transformation was occurring! But the restoration of more than concrete and steel was happening in this place - the sort of conversion that God is most concerned with.