Martin's Crossing is in the advanced stages of white flight. Once a friendly, active community in suburban Atlanta, it has succumbed to the terminal disease of racial disintegration. Gone are the neighborhood tennis tournaments and lively celebrations at the clubhouse. Gone are the fun-filled summer parties around the pool. The clubhouse is silent now, grown up with weeds. The pool is algae covered, a breeding ground for mosquitos. It wasn't so long ago that Martin's Crossing was an ideal place to raise one's family. It was a charming 460 home subdivision that had it all - friendly neighbors, an active community association, a great recreational program, a feeling of security and neighborhood pride. That was when Martin's Crossing was young and rich with idealism. But all that is gone now, lost to a silent fear that crept slowly into first one home, then another, until a full-blown epidemic had taken over. It was undetectable at first - one family moving away for what appeared to be benign reasons. Then another. And another. No mention of racial discomfort as more black families moved in. But slowly the fear began to surface, not in overt expression, but in innuendo and hushed backyard conversations.
More than anything else, it was the gradual withdrawal of neighbor from neighbor that revealed the disease, much more than the veiled comment or sideways glance. Communication went underground. Neighborly engagement dwindled to surface friendliness. Currents of silent suspicion about who would be next to "sell out" eroded trust among former friends. The most telling sign of disengagement was when residents stopped paying their association dues. And then ceased attending community meetings. By this time the epidemic was well out of control.
Jeff and Rachel Bird had bought a home in Martin's Crossing eight years earlier. A white couple totally oblivious to the cancer that had begun to infect the community, they jumped into the middle of active community life. They liked the flavor of cultural diversity, having not yet learned the insidious nature of racial fear. In time, they began to suspect that hidden forces were eating away at the fiber of the community. Finally, when the white exodus could no longer be ignored, they saw for the first time in the faces of their neighbors the devastating effects of the epidemic: the deceptive fear that convinced honorable people that their motives for leaving were acceptable if not entirely pure; the silent pain of being deemed undesirable as a neighbor; the pervasive grief over the death of dreams. As they watched the neighborhood association falter, dues dwindle and alienation increase, Jeff and Rachel had the sinking feeling that they had made a huge mistake.
The Birds had unwittingly moved into the middle of an immense spiritual battleground. At Martin's Crossing a momentous drama was and is being played out, a life and death struggle that represents the Church's greatest challenge of our day - racial reconciliation. It's what Billy Graham calls "the great unfinished work of the Church." At Martin's Crossing the dividing issues can be clearly seen. Historic prejudices can not be glossed over with politically correct jargon. Tokenism does not work here. Nor can church folk on either side delude themselves into believing that "choir swapping" and "pulpit sharing" have accomplished racial healing. There is nothing romantic or utopian here - this is real life. Investments are on the line. Personal prejudices, unwanted and often denied, are daily in one's face. Parents anguish over the telling decision of who will be their children's playmates. In this place the demands of faith collide with the appeal of mammon. And mammon is consistently winning the day.
It is no accident that Jeff and Rachel are here. This is a much bigger issue than a mere real estate investment. This is a spiritual proving ground not only for them but for their church as well. They are members of a strong, growing, largely white church which holds a high view of scripture and is committed to impacting the city with the Good News. Their church has invested significantly in inner-city ministry and even helps to support a black inner-city minister. But the Bird's situation forces a very different and disquieting issue to the fore. Cross-racial friendships at a comfortable distance are one thing; Martin's Crossing, however, brings the whole issue into uncomfortable proximity. They and their church are staring into the face of the most troubling faith test of our time - racial reconciliation where we live.
What would Good News look like in the fragmenting community of Martin's Crossing? What message would assuage the hostilities and calm the fears? What would it take to draw neighbors out of their isolation back into relationship? It would certainly take more than increased church attendance (many residents, new and old, drive out of the subdivision each Sunday to attend their various places of worship). Besides, churches seem to pull neighbors out of the community rather than mobilize them to be effective neighbors within the community. Jeff and Rachel have tried a number of things: cookouts, prayer meetings, block parties and community work days. Their neighbors have been appreciative but the demoralizing effect of the relentless exodus of white neighbors spreads like a pall over all that is positive. Each new "For Sale" sign screams out the silent message: "I don't want to be your neighbor!" Everyone knows, but does not say, that in the end Martin's Crossing will become one more segregated southern community. Whites will have left bearing guilt in their souls, their prejudices intact. Blacks who own their homes will vacillate between hurt and resentment. The fractures of distrust will have widened into chasms of disdain. Their faith will have proved inadequate for the challenge. Unless...
It would be a long shot. Too much to expect, really. But it could happen. The Birds could bring this dilemma before their church. And their church could elect to take it seriously. This would call for commitments deeper than Saturday service projects or outreach programs, however. It would require a radical re-thinking of the role of church in society. It would tread into areas that have been largely off-limits for the Western church, confronting hard questions not only about how God's people are to love their neighbors but where they are to live as neighbors. New practical theologies of "neighboring" and "deployment" would need to be preached and modeled. And if the next several homes in Martin's Crossing are purchased by church members who are serious about lifestyles of reconciliation, we will know that new hope has dawned in the land. Such is the nature of the Good News that the people of Martin's Crossing and of our fractured nation await.
Like I said, it's a long shot.