It all started on a bus ride in May 2009. I was headed back home from Atlanta Metropolitan College, a black institution, where I was teaching history. I sat next to an African-American lady by the name of Mary. Slim-build, mid-fifties, reading a devotional book. After I engaged her in conversation, she asked me what I did. I replied that I was a college professor, but that I was also a minister—to which she responded, “Oh, I could tell, I could just tell—I’ve been praying for someone to teach me the Bible!” I accompanied her onto the MARTA train, and before she got off at her stop in midtown Atlanta, she turned to me and said, “Don’t forget ‘the least of these’! Don’t forget ‘the least of these’!”—reflecting the words which Jesus had uttered in Matthew 25. The next day, I had lunch with a Presbyterian deacon up in the suburbs where we live, and without knowing what Mary had told me, he said, “Well, you know, Frank, we must remember ‘the least of these.’”
Talk about getting a message!
Within a few weeks, we began a Bible study, hosted at First United Methodist Church on Peachtree Street, right across from where Mary lived, the old Imperial Hotel—a building that at one time had been a luxury place to stay, but was now dedicated to low-income housing. I would go out Sunday afternoon and compel passersby—many of them homeless—to come in to a Bible study. After a couple of months there, we moved to a Presbyterian (PCA) congregation, over at the corner of Ponce de Leon and Piedmont. For eight months, beginning in August 2009, we conducted Bible studies there. Sometimes we’d have a dozen or so. Other times the attendance was very slim. Once, it was only my wife Penny and myself. We thought, Maybe this isn’t God’s will, to have this downtown ministry. And we were ok with that.
But then, on April 4, 2010, Mary, who had been somewhat spotty in her attendance, came back. And on that occasion, she declared, “I’m going to take you to the Bluff! I’m going to take you to the Bluff!”
Seeing how my wife is British, hearing of “the Bluff,” I immediately thought of the white cliffs of Dover. Or maybe Council Bluffs, Iowa, or Scotts Bluff, Nebraska. You know, some geological promontory of some sort. Well, not exactly.
After the study, Mary directed us down North Avenue, past Bobby Dodd Stadium at Georgia Tech, across Northside Drive, into the heart of the Bluff. We passed by burned-out apartment buildings and abandoned houses. We quickly discovered that “the Bluff” is a pejorative term for an area that is notorious for being the heroin and prostitution neighborhood of the city. Mary directed us to pull over beside a tired grocery store. Catty corner across from that store stood a church building, St. Marks AME, the roof of which had long since collapsed, leaving only four stone walls and a couple of sets of concrete steps. A group of about fifteen people, all of them black, hovered around the intersection—an intersection which we would later learn was one of the most dangerous in the country, due to the drug deals. Mary commanded us, “Get out!” My wife and I looked at each other, as if to say, “What in the world did we get ourselves into here?” But, of course you get out. As soon as we did, it was obvious that everyone there knew and loved Mary. Her late husband had been a drug kingpin in the area. She herself had been in a drug-induced coma for 28 days, but at this point was not on drugs and was looking pretty good. She declared to all the folks there, “We’re going to have church here next week, right here on the steps, at 5 o’clock—5 o’clock, next Sunday!” And that’s how we were Providentially led to this ministry area.
For more than two and a half years, week after week after week, Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship met for a Bible study on the steps of that derelict church building, in all kinds of weather and conditions. We even had to dodge bullets on at least one occasion. Then, in December 2012, a Muslim fellow who owned a grocery store a few blocks away allowed us to meet in the back of that store, without charging us a dime. Thus began our conducting weekly public worship. We eventually rented space from a church for several months, and then from another church for a year and a half, and then rented one side of a duplex for more than four years. In October 2019, we began a six-month lease of a church building. The congregation that owns the structure is elderly and is planning to dissolve. Our hope is to be able to purchase this facility. But in order to do so, we have to raise a whole bunch of money—quickly.
For about a decade, first as Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship and now as Atlanta Reformed Presbyterian Church, we have served this needy neighborhood, an area characterized by brokenness and sinfulness and rebellion against God. It is also an area that is rapidly being gentrified. As a result of the transformation of the neighborhood, our congregation is right at the intersection of the haves and the have-nots.
We have not forgotten (nor will we ever forget) “the least of these.” Much of our ministry continues to entail the meeting of the needs, spiritual and diaconal, of very needy people. But being a city church, we also have a unique opportunity to bring the gospel message and the proclamation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to the heart of a major world-class city. The building we hope to buy is two blocks from a new multi-million dollar park; four blocks from the Georgia World Congress Center; about two-thirds of a mile from the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium; about a mile from major tourist attractions (World of Coca-Cola; Georgia Aquarium; College Football Hall of Fame; CNN Center); and a mile and a half from Georgia Tech. We are virtually in the shadow of the skyscrapers of Atlanta’s Midtown.
The Lord has led us every step of the way, and through many dangers, toils, and snares, preserved us and the ministry. But now, we face a great challenge in terms of raising the funds necessary for this ministry to be firmly anchored in this strategic location. We earnestly invite you to partner with us, in prayer (knowing that the Lord must build this house), and, as the Lord leads, by means of your financial gifts. And we especially invite you to come and worship with us and experience the warm fellowship of the congregation. Thank you.
For Christ’s crown and covenant,
Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D.
Pastor, Atlanta Reformed Presbyterian Church