“This city has a definite anti-church bias,” the pastor declared, leaning forward across his cup of steaming Chinese tea, brow furrowed with frustration. At every turn he had faced city resistance to his church’s plan to build a worship-community center on the five acre site they owned free and clear. Zoning hurdles, city planning department stonewalling, uncooperative building department staff — all clear messages that the city did not want a church built on that land. “We may have to get an attorney and take them to court.” The city of Doraville, a close-in suburb of Atlanta, was an amazing place to minister, especially for those committed to world missions. Over the past three decades it had become a port of entry for immigrants and refugees from all over the globe — Asia, Central Europe, Central and South America, Africa. A steady stream of new arrivals poured in daily, crowding into apartments with friends and relatives, snapping up every low-paying job they could find. These new-comers, eager to adapt to their new land of opportunity, flocked to ESL classes, support groups, and youth programs sponsored by churches and agencies in the area. For religious groups committed to outreach, Doraville was a field of dreams. The world was literally coming to their doorstep.
“We have a very strategic location,” the pastor continued, “right between two large apartment complexes.” The church had purchased the five acre site for the express purpose of outreach ministry to the immigrant population packed into the surrounding neighborhood. The plan was to construct a utilitarian facility that could be used for all manner of recreational and service programs as well as worship services. It would be a beacon of light, a lighthouse sitting squarely in the middle of teeming multitudes searching for belonging and hope. What a perfect location for the Gospel to be visibly demonstrated! “But the anti-church attitude of city officials has brought our plans to a halt.” A mixture of anger and disappointment registered in his eyes.
A mile and a half from the Chinese restaurant where we sipped our tea a very different conversation had been taking place. City Hall. The mayor, department heads, and various elected council members had convened numerous times to discuss a comprehensive city-wide revitalization plan. It was an expensive plan created by a nationally recognized urban consulting firm. But it was brilliant — tree-lined streetscapes along major thoroughfares, pedestrian-oriented walkways that connected residential neighborhoods with new commercial shopping clusters and restaurant districts, new urbanism design with an integrated mixture of single-family homes, attractive shops and live-work condominiums. The renderings portrayed a Doraville that its beleaguered citizens longed for — a charming, green community with vibrant economy and friendly, safe streets.
It had been generations since Doraville had been able to dream dreams like this. In the 50’s it had been the proud host of a state-of-the-art General Motors assembly plant — the symbol of American enterprise. The post-war boom had launched the community into an era of vigorous prosperity. Everyone was working, starter homes lined cull-du-sacs, new schools were being built. These were the good days that few imagined would ever end. This was before the refugees started to show up.
At first it was only a trickle of refugees from Vietnam. Then Cambodians. And Hmong. And then somehow the floodgates swung wide and Asians of every description started pouring in. Koreans, Chinese, Indians. Soon came the Mexicans, hoards of Spanish-speaking legals and illegals flooding in from the southern border, crowding into once-nice apartments with cousins and uncles and friends from rural villages back home. Before anyone could do anything about it, Doraville had become Atlanta’s out-of-control port of entry.
Strange signage soon proliferated along major thoroughfares as ethnic shops and restaurants opened — letters and words illegible to the Doraville citizenry. The health department started receiving complaints about chickens and goats being slaughtered in local apartments. Gang activity was reported for the first time. Teachers in the local schools were overwhelmed with students who could neither speak nor understand English, and few translators to help them decipher even the most rudimentary communication. Longtime homeowners began to exit, selling their houses at reduced prices, getting out “while the getting was good.” Attractively manicured three bedroom, one bath bungalows turned into jammed communal houses, driveways lined with worn-out cars. For elected officials and public servants attempting to keep the systems of the city functioning, these were not good days.
Then came the devastating news about the closing of the GM plant. The one stabilizing anchor that had kept the wheels on the Doraville economy was now departing. What ever would city leaders do?!
Turn lemons into lemonade! Could the plant closing possibly be a godsend after all? According to the urban planning consultants, 165 acres of prime real estate sitting at the convergence of two major interstates could be redeveloped into an amazing new urbanism village that could be the catalyst for reigniting the entire Doraville area. It could have a rich international flavor, be the source of hundreds of new jobs, attract a cosmopolitan population back into the city, provide an even stronger tax base to fund all manner of community improvements. There was more positive energy in city hall than it had seen in decades. Their troubled port-of-entry city could become a highly desirable point-of-destination magnet for all manner of interesting new businesses and customers, for upscale housing and moneyed neighbors.
One thing was for sure. Now was not the time to encourage programs or facilities that would further entrench the poverty that had settled like a pall over the city. It was time to dream about rebuilding healthy mixed-income neighborhoods, time to strategize how to thin out concentrated poverty compounds and absorb an immigrant population into the fabric of the larger community. It was not the time to support a new church center built to serve an overcrowded poverty area.
“All they’re concerned about is the money,” the pastor declared. “They see dollar signs, upscale condos, high-end retail. They see this GM deal as the new Atlantic Station.” The reference was to downtown Atlanta’s hippest new town within a town concept. “Where’s the compassion, where’s the concern for what happens to the poor who are uprooted and scattered to the winds by big development?” He was right, of course. The energy at city hall was all about growth and development these days. So much of their hard effort in past years had been consumed in trying to keep the city from disintegrating into chaos. These new dreams of a reborn city were absolutely exhilarating. Meanwhile, the social service agencies, the churches, the non-profits who spent themselves caring for the needs of the poor were all still out there, still appreciated for their heroic work, but for the most part consumed in their myopic direct-service world. And while these wonderful ministry-types were busy teaching parents how to read and write English, city officials were sweating over budgets, stretching and leveraging shrinking tax dollars to keep police from being overwhelmed by street crime, firefighters from striking, and communicable diseases from mushrooming into an epidemic. Plus fix potholes. The pastor was right. They were mostly concerned about money — how to keep enough of it coming in to keep the city running, how to allocate it wisely, how to leverage it for greater benefit. But these were not, as the pastor accused, people without compassion. On the contrary, these money-focused city leaders may well have been acting in the most compassionate way possible: strategizing ways for the city to become prosperous once again. Prosperous and just — if in their planning they were attempting to include as beneficiaries all of the city’s diverse population.
Do justice! Now there’s a different role for the church to play.
“Mercy” ministry had been the major outreach of this church — feeding, clothing, counseling, tutoring — all important activities that demonstrate Christ’s love for those in need. But loving mercy is only part of the Kingdom mission. Doing justice is another vital role. The voiceless poor need representation at the planning table where decision-makers are shaping future plans. Someone who understands how economics works must ensure that adequate affordable housing is woven into new development strategies. Those with reconciling spirits must do shuttle diplomacy between and among the diverse cultures and interests of the community to ensure that all are taken into account. This too is the mission of the church — to insert its redemptive influence and strength into the decision-making process so that compassion and justice prevail in their city.
The ancient prophet Micah summed it up this way:
He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?