Approach the intersection of Second Avenue and Boulevard Drive any time, day or night, and you will see the raw and unchecked version of street life when crime takes over a community. Clusters of men congregate on the corner in front of a row of storefronts, openly selling drugs to the passing traffic. Across the street, cars pull in and out of the parking lot of a boarded up fast food chicken place, stopping long enough to exchange stolen goods for cash with the entrepreneurs who have moved in on this abandoned turf. In the wooded lot behind the chicken place prostitutes conduct their business under the watchful eyes of their pimps. The gas station on the other corner swarms with "mechanics" stripping automobiles of fencible parts. Beside the station a large Victorian house, partitioned into cheap rental rooms, houses addicts who burglarize the neighborhood by day and descend into their own private hell by night. Welcome to East Lake! The pride and charm that once characterized this Atlanta neighborhood disappeared years ago as its children grew up and departed for greener suburban pastures. Weeds and trash eventually took over manicured yards and graffiti replaced attractive streetscapes. Absentee landlords who bought up the properties cared less about the quality of community life than about doubling up their rental revenues. The elderly who stayed were condemned to a life of isolation behind drawn shades and deadbolt locks. As fear crept in, the police, dependent upon community vigilance and support, lost their ability to keep the peace. Neighbors lost courage to report crime and witnesses became reluctant to appear in court. With leadership strength depleted, the community degenerated into a wild, unsecured territory, wide open to thieves and thugs and other predators who thrive in lawless environs.
Is there a way to turn around a neighborhood that has been overrun by crime? Can East Lake ever again become a healthy community in which to raise children? Yes, most assuredly! But it will not happen simply by passing tougher anti-crime legislation or putting more police on the streets. Nor does street evangelism or church sponsored mid-night basketball offer an adequate solution, as important as they may be. Life on the corner of Second Avenue and Boulevard Drive is determined by two critical factors: occupation and leadership.
Those who occupy the land at this strategic community crossroad and the type of leadership they exert will determine its quality of life. Currently, roguish renters and predatory leaders occupy this turf. The weak and vulnerable are withdrawn into the surrounding shadows. But introduce a couple of committed neighbor-leaders into the territory and the dynamic begins to shift. Those who have endured victimization begin to show themselves and courage starts to resurface. Police sense that they have some new allies and are energized to renew their peace-keeping patrols. Illicit activity on the corner, which does not do well under scrutiny, becomes more cautious and gradually starts to drift away. Neighborhood energy, long consumed in personal protection, begins to refocus on community well-being. The playground is reclaimed. A legitimate grocery store is sought. Zoning enforcement is solicited to close down overcrowded apartments. In time, the land is reclaimed for redemptive purposes and health returns. The defining factor is who occupies it and who will assert leadership.
Sound like wishful thinking? Just take a few snapshots of this corner. (You might want to use a little caution if you drive by with your camera right now!) Six months from now this intersection will seem noticeably different. Two years from now you won't recognize it as the same place. A few faith-motivated visionaries have decided to put their talents and resources to work reclaiming this community. In low-key manner they have been getting to know the good-hearted neighbors in the area. Jeffrey, our 26 year old son who has been caught by the vision, just purchased a home near the corner and is gathering intelligence on all the activity around him. The group has been quietly buying up vacant lots and derelict houses. They've torn down a couple of crack houses that were beyond repair. They have leased one duplex to a Christian couple who will be good resident managers. The Victorian rooming house is currently under contract. This month Charis (our housing ministry) will break ground on the land which prostitutes now use; seven new homes will be built here for key families who are making serious commitments to reclaim their community.
In religious terms, we might describe this as the practical theology of occupation. It is about the strategic redeployment of the saints. It raises the question: Does it matter where the people of God locate themselves in this world? At a time of unprecedented global urbanization when our cities are in very deep trouble, the issue of where we live our witness has enormous consequences. Grand strategies to evangelize the world en masse via mega-gatherings, satellite and other state-of-the-art communication methods may have their place. But the task of redeeming our cities will be accomplished on the ground, one block at a time, by courageous people who take the daily risks that bring life to their small corner of the world.
"Occupy till I come," (Lk.19:13KJV) were the Lord's parting instructions as he illustrated how his Kingdom is to function in this world. Never have marching orders been more strategic.