It was an ambush! There was no other way to describe it. We should have seen it coming when the private meeting in our city council member’s office was unexpectedly moved to a conference room. It was to have been a personal discussion with a pastor over a couple vacant lots we owned adjacent to his church in South Atlanta. But when the room filled with several high-profile Atlanta ministers and three heavyweights from city council, it was apparent that this was going to be anything but a quiet, personal conversation. Yes, we did own the land in question, we acknowledged. Yes, we did know that the church wanted the land for parking. These were lots we had acquired at the request of the community for building new homes, we explained. As a matter of fact, we owned a good number of lots in South Atlanta. Eighteen months earlier the neighborhood association, comprised mostly of senior homeowners, had appealed to our ministry to help them revitalize their badly deteriorated community. We agreed to partner with them. Together we designed a plan to rebuild dilapidated houses, construct new mixed-income housing, clean up trash-filled lots, and attract new homeowners back into the area. Key to implementing the plan was acquiring or gaining control of 200 vacant residential lots.
This ambush would have never happened had the church been part of the community the way it was in its younger years. There would have been no need. In those days the pastor and his family lived in the parsonage beside the church. Its members were neighbors who walked to church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings and for choir practice and youth fellowship. Parking then was a non-issue. Those were the days when what was good for the church was good for the community. But those days were long gone. Church attendance had now dwindled to a dozen on a good Sunday. The pastor and all but two of the members lived a good drive from the church. Any future growth would be dependent upon some younger preacher with enough charisma to draw in friends and acquaintances from around the city. Parking would thus be critical.
The aging pastor and his heir-apparent son wanted the lots next to the church. The future of the church, as they envisioned it, was dependent upon adequate parking. Though the current budget was insufficient to fix the leaking roof on their building, they clung tenaciously to the hope that better days lie ahead. I was sympathetic to their plight. But more parking lots were not part of the community’s plan. As a matter of fact, there was already far too much parking in the neighborhood. Two of the more successful churches had gobbled up entire blocks of land, land where houses once stood, land now blacktopped, sitting vacant six days out of seven. No, the community did not need more parking. It needed housing.
How strange it felt being in opposition to the church! But there we sat, lined up like infidels, facing the wrath of clergy and politicians. Johnny-come-lately’s, we were being branded, white folk with no appreciation for the importance of the historic role of the black church. It would be pointless to bring up our thirty-plus years of serving the poor and, for sure, no one in this room was about to come to our defense. It would do no good to explain that this church was no longer part of this community, or that parking lots were not community-friendly. Listening – that was our only recourse. Listen to the charges of insensitivity. Listen to the veiled threats. Listen to the guilt that was piled high on our pagan heads.
The meeting ended with handshakes and smiles and an expressed confidence that we would do the right thing (which felt more like intimidation than a belief in our inherent goodness). In the final analysis, it would be the neighborhood’s decision. After all, we were in South Atlanta at the invitation of the community and were simply implementing their plan. But just to cover our bases, we phoned our attorney to see what our legal standing was. To our astonishment, we learned that scores of similar incidents were erupting in cities all over the country. The church in conflict with its community – it is apparently a sign of the times!
Something has gone very wrong. One might expect weird cults to ignite neighborhood controversy but not traditional churches with long histories in their communities. I went to the web and did a search of news articles and court cases on this issue. Our lawyer was right. Cities are passing zoning ordinances to limit church growth, neighborhood groups are organizing against church “encroachment” into residential areas, citizens are filing for restraining orders to prevent churches from tearing down homes… and on and on and on. Claims and counter-claims, lawsuits and appeals, ministers condemning community opposition as satanic, neighbors fighting relentless religious forces that threaten to destroy the residential character of neighborhoods in the name of God. It is very difficult to determine who is wearing the white or black hats here. These are all good people but with terribly different perspectives. Must I choose one side over the other?
Perhaps there is a way to make lemonade out of this lemon of a dilemma. The church could ask itself what kind of reorientation would be required to make it community-friendly once again. And the neighborhood could ask itself what kind of community planning would include the church as a central player. It may be unrealistic for the church to limit its membership and outreach to its parish but at least the pastor could live in the neighborhood and become active in the neighborhood association. And the community could provide a prime lot for the building of his home. The church could promote community development efforts by recruiting strong, faith-motivated families to move back into the area to re-neighbor it. And the neighborhood could attract building partners to provide special financing and down-payment assistance for families the church would pre-qualify. The church could start a tutoring program for neighborhood children and the community could mobilize volunteer tutors and fund-raising events to support it. And a parking lot could double as a basketball court.
Two things are certain. A community devoid of the influence of the church will surely suffer from a lack of spiritual vitality. And a church alienated from the people who live around it can hardly bear faithful witness to its creed. But who is willing to make the first move?