Refelctions on a visit to Atlantaby Rob Alloway
Recently Joy and I were part of a quick survey weekend to observe some models of urban renewal underway in Atlanta's inner city. The pace of the tour was rapid, something like the view you might have from a low-flying airplane. We saw nine work or ministry sites in two half-day tours. The time constraints denied us the comfort of our usual rational approach to gathering and processing information. Instead, we found ourselves popping in and out of pictures, Mary Poppins style - as though sidewalk chalk drawings suddenly reached out and grabbed us into their world. Now, a day or two later, I find that a part of me has remained inside two of them.
* * *
Our bus lumbers into the new housing community of East Lake. Our host explains that this development will be a collection of 540 mixed-income housing units surrounding an 18-hole golf course, school, YMCA facility and small lake. Not bad for what used to be public housing with the highest murder rate in Atlanta. Part of its support comes from a neighboring golf course - East Lake Golf Club - where green fees are $140, not counting caddie costs and drinks at the nineteenth. Initiation is a mere $250,000 with membership capped at a hundred, but we are told the cherry in the locker rooms is solid, not veneer. I don't ask about the annual fees, thinking that, like buying a boat, if you have to ask, you most definitely can't afford it.
The club house is opulent, with thirty-foot ceilings and spacious lounges restored to the height of Old South charm. The golf club is the work of Tom Cousins, a visionary, who restored the clubhouse and the course of the late golf legend Bobby Jones. On completion, Mr. Cousins donated the course to a foundation dedicated to use the profits generated to support the creative initiatives going on in the new housing development across the street.
The two sites together are a monument to creative symbiosis in the best sense of both those words. Violence has been replaced with vitality; harshness with hope. It's where the super rich can "golf with a purpose", says our host, and the proceeds nurture the rebirth of what was the worst slum in Atlanta. He chuckles at the oxymoron of the marketing phrase that adorns some very expensive golf shirts available to founding members. Bearing the slogan "Golf with a purpose", the shirts are a status symbol that confirms both wealth and social conscience of the wearers. Both are nice things to have. I look to see if the shirts are for sale in the golf shop, but do not find them.
* * *
The Blood & Fire ministry operates a combination shelter, soup kitchen and chapel for homeless men. We arrive after dark and enter a warehouse via a rotting wooden ramp pooled with water. Only later do I realize that the puddles probably are not rain but dishwater from the makeshift facilities that we walk through to get to the long trestle tables set up for those who have come to eat. We are welcomed genuinely and served graciously. The food is good and the few people with whom I get a chance to speak accept our intrusion into their space and security without rancor.
After the meal we walk up two flights of stairs, through a maze of rickety corridors, to arrive at a commanding picture window made possible by someone having simply knocked a gigantic hole in the side of the building. Directly in the center of our view is the state capitol building. Its huge central dome gleams in the night, modeled after the senate building in Washington. Bright floodlights burnish its gold trim. One of the group comments that this is a scene of the "powerless" gazing upon the "powerful". It is a catch phrase, so much so that it is repeated several times. I am not so sure. It is more like the opening of two chalk pictures facing each other - two worlds that exist together but never touch. For all the power of government, it has failed miserably to change the world of those who come to this warehouse to eat and sleep. The coinage of Caesar seems not to buy much change in this world. Our host, the director of the ministry, sports a gaudy T-shirt with the "Blood & Fire" logo splashed like a hurried grade-school scrawl across his chest. Someone comments on it and he says that they are available. Blood and Fire. Nice things to have as well.
Next door to where we ate is the chapel and shelter. There the lights are brighter, and the new roof and windows confirm that a beachhead has been established. As I enter I sense that this is holy ground. Scattered among the pews are the pallets of men already seeking sleep. They are safe in the arms of Jesus. Part of me is envious at the obvious affirmation of the incarnate Christ. There is a lump in my throat. I, too, need his enfolding embrace. It is harder to feel when you have so much.
Our bus leaves. We roll slowly past blocks of tenement row housing looking like many Welsh coal cottages, landmarks of the industrial slums of another era. They scream of a failed government solution. Between the rows is vacant land, divided roughly into what is supposed to serve as back yards. I spot a clothesline full of family lines - bed sheets and T-shirts. It tells me there is a mother who is determined that her family will be clean. I am surprised to see the clothes hung out. The whole neighborhood seems crime infested. I mentally put my "golf shirt" on her line and ponder the absurdity of the image. But the clothesline, none-the-less, is a bold declaration that at least one family will not remain a helpless victim of the surroundings. I find myself wishing very hard that no harm will come to the family that owns the clothes.
* * *
It is easy to be critical of those who wear the golf shirts, and laud the purity of those who wear the banner of Blood and Fire. It is also easy to be soothed by the gratitude that people express when you are a funder of projects. I, who live much closer to the golf course, am tempted to deal with my guilt by simply abdicating my resources quickly so that I can't be held responsible. But is that a mature response? Does it not simply repudiate the uniqueness of my life, and shift the difficulties of creativity and discernment to others?
What I finally conclude is that all of us need to choose our own shirt - our own way to declare tiny beachheads for the Kingdom and splash or stitch our colors into the fabric of our lives. The sin is in thinking that we can slide by, not having to choose anything at all. Blood & Fire, Golf with a Purpose - both kinds of ministry have a place within the big tapestry. Judging the clothes of the others is not our prerogative. Choosing our own is.
So how to choose? I come away with one clue that showed up in every chalk drawing. The people we met were having fun. It's a word that's been dropped from Christian service discussions - replaced with the nobler concepts of strategic sacrifice. But on reflection, every person who spoke to us used the word at least once to describe what they did. The biblical equivalent is called joy. It is what the man had when he found buried treasure in the field, went, and sold all that he had to acquire. He'd found a T-shirt, made just for him, and happily rearranged his life in order to wear it. Maybe the clothes that Jesus spoke of are not just the robes of salvation. Perhaps they also include the clothes of service, the uniform of joy.
Rob Alloway is a writer living in Toronto, Canada. His first book, Balaam's Revenge and Other Uncommon Tales, is a collection of eight, lesser known Old Testament stories re-told for the adult reader. They are earthy, provocative, and a delight to read. It will surprise you to discover that they are also true. Published by Regent College Publishing, it is available by phoning their bookstore directly at 1-800-334-3279, or online at Amazon.com.