2011 in the Bluff (Part 1)

December 31, 2011

It is now twenty months since we started ministering to the folk in the English Avenue district of downtown Atlanta, known as the Bluff.  We currently have an average of 13 in attendance each week, which includes those of us who come down from the suburbs.  Every Lord’s Day afternoon the arrival of Frank and me along with our faithful assistant, Amy Work, is anticipated by the residents.  On one occasion recently, a car was parked in “our” space and there was a small group of men on “our” steps.  As soon as they saw us approach they literally jumped up, declaring “The preacher is here, the preacher is here!”, the owner of the car called out that he would move it right away, and the steps were suddenly vacated to make room for us.  These men did not join the study, but we were touched at the respect they held for “the preacher”.  Amy enjoys her role as the teacher of the little children who attend, holding her class on the second set of steps of the burned-out church building on the corner of Kennedy and Brawley.AME Building

We were encouraged this year by the interest shown in our downtown ministry by a number of visitors from around the country.  As reported in a previous issue, in January three young men came for a weekend from Erskine College in South Carolina specifically to experience this kind of ministry.  In July Amy’s parents, Steven and Jeannie Work, came for the baptism of their new grandson in Chattanooga, and then came down to spend the evening in the Bluff with Amy.  Steven, who is pastor of the RPCNA church in Quinter, Kansas, led the Bible study that evening and then unexpectedly appeared the following Lord’s Day evening as well because they had suffered car problems and had not yet returned home.  Their support gave us a real emotional and spiritual boost.  Later in the same month, Paul Huffmaster, a member of an independent psalm-singing church in San Diego, visited his father south of Atlanta, and attended Northminster one of the three weeks he was in the area.  On the other Lord’s Days he attended his father’s church, but he joined us in the Bluff on all the Sundays he was here.  He was also a great encouragement to us as well as an enormous help with regard to ferrying children to and from the Bible study.  Then in November, Mark Sampson, from Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, who was visiting the area in order to make fundraising contacts, both worshipped with us in the morning and came into the Bluff with us in the evening.  Again, he was not only of great encouragement but also of great practical help ferrying children.

And who could forget the RP missions team comprising Stephen McCollum from Northern Ireland, Carla Quigley from Scotland, and Brenda Gladfeldter from Pennsylvania, along with Colleen Hartlaub from Wisconsin, who were here in the summer.  They, along with Amy and ourselves, held a “block party” on a vacant lot one Saturday morning.  Amy, who is a teacher in a Christian School in Marietta, had written the story of Moses and Pharaoh as a play in which the children could participate.  Stephen was brilliantly menacing in his portrayal of Pharaoh, wrapped in a purple table cloth with a gold napkin wrapped round his head pharaoh-style, waving a scepter that looked suspiciously like a curtain rod.  Carla played Aaron complete with fake beard, Brenda and Colleen dressed up as court magicians, and the children took it in turns to play Moses and, later, Aaron as well.  Besides narrating the script, Amy had even come up with games to represent the plagues. For example, a relay game involving cups of red juice illustrated the Nile turning to blood, the game of leapfrog depicted the plague of frogs, and, to portray the animal deaths, the children imitated an animal of their choice before falling down “dead”.  Unfortunately, we had only four children in attendance, but it turned out to be a great success for those who were there, with a lot of laughter and fun in addition to the learning.  Frank ended the morning on a serious note, explaining the meaning of the story, and using it to introduce Christ and explain the gospel to the children.  All four children came back the next day to the Bible study, and two who were brothers also brought their older brother.  They attended one more week, but after that we couldn’t locate them, and it turned out that they had moved.  Months later, however, we found them and they, along with a sister, started attending again.

The other two young people who came to the block party were Jenario (now 14 years old) and Miyani (now 10 years old), who have been very faithful in their attendance for over a year now, hardly ever missing a week.  We have been proud of Jenario’s efforts to memorise Bible verses and the answers to the first few Shorter Catechism questions.

In addition to the block party, the missions team also set up a prayer table on two other occasions and a number of needy people come by to ask for prayer.  Their names and prayer requests were logged, and we undertook to pray for each one for 14 days.  We still have folk from that endeavour join us occasionally at our regular Bible study.


The Following Lord’s Day

December 11, 2011

On the Lord’s Day following the events recorded in my previous article, we were, understandably, in a different frame of mind than usual as we headed back down Georgia 400 to the Bluff.  In the early days of our ministry, which had begun twenty months ago, we had gone into the area with an older black lady whose husband had been a previous drug kingpin.  She was well-known and beloved, and therefore we were immediately accepted because of our association with her.  She was, as it were, our “ticket” in.  Since then we had felt comfortable being in the area, even though this lady had stopped attending.  Now we were uncertain again, vexed by the thought that by encouraging people to come, especially the children, we might be causing them to be put in danger.  During the week, as we reflected on the events of December 4th, we wondered what lessons the Lord was teaching us.  Does he want us to make changes to the ministry?  Is he telling us that we need to change our location by moving a block or two away from the “hotspot” intersection?  Have we taken our safety for granted and not relied sufficiently on the Lord for his protection or thanked him sufficiently for his watch-care over us?  As we prayed during the week, we begged, Show us, O Lord God of Armies, Show us what your will is.

Before leaving for Atlanta, Frank always calls several of our “regulars” to remind them of the study, and this week, one such person, who had not been there last week, turned out to be very encouraging.  Fairly early in the conversation, this man mentioned that he’d heard about the shooting.  Apparently, around 11 o’clock last Sunday night, he was on the platform at the MARTA train station and he overheard folks talking about the incident, including the fact that the preacher had to be yelled at to take cover!  It would appear that news of our ministry is beginning to spread.

He said that even though there is occasional gunfire, it is not often that someone is killed.  As an example, he told Frank about what happened five weeks ago, around 1 PM on a Sunday afternoon, when a man had been shot to death around Brawley and North.  This was a fellow who, the previous Friday, had robbed six people.  He was chased by some folks, went to his car, got a gun and frightened them away.  For some reason, he came back two days later, and five bullets were pumped into his chest.  He did admit, however, that there have been incidents where people were accidentally shot, and he specifically mentioned a girl having been injured in her foot.

When Frank asked him if he knew of any animosity toward us, he said that he’s never heard anything negative said about us, only positive things.  Frank mentioned that it was his understanding that the drug kingpin likes and appreciates us, and he confirmed that.  He said that no one thinks that we’re taking pictures for the police; he said, “We trust you.”  He also said that we are accepted as part of the neighbourhood – that we don’t disturb whatever deals are going down, and that we’re there just like the rest of them: it’s just that we happen to be preaching.  He also told Frank that by being so faithful in our ministry we are giving people hope.

With this encouragement we headed south on a bleak, cold and windy afternoon.  As we entered the Bluff we drove through an area that normally has a lot of children playing, but, probably because of the chilly weather and the fact that it was beginning to get dark, there was no-one outside.  As we drove into the heart of the Bluff we passed a couple of intersections where more men than usual had congregated on the street corners and I found this a little unnerving.  Everything looked a little more menacing than it normally does, and I needed to recall memorized Bible verses to restore my strength.  After Frank parked by the steps of the burned-out church building I went round to the back of the car to take the easel and cooler out of the trunk, and I heard a gunshot coming from behind me.  My heart sank, and I thought, “O Lord, not again!”  I stopped what I was doing and went up to Amy and Linda, who had arrived ahead of us.  They had big smiles on their faces, and eagerly told Frank and me that when they arrived there had been a couple of men on the church steps and a large group gathered outside the convenience store.  But the nephew of the kingpin was one of those on the steps, and he and the other man left and shoo’d the group away from the store.  The steps were now empty and the sidewalk across the street only had a few people left.  In answer to my concern about the gunshot, Linda said that was OK – nothing to worry about!

The Bible study went well.  No unusual incidents.  Frank started the study by saying that we’d carry on where we’d left off so abruptly last week!  This brought a round of laughter.  We had eleven people in attendance, and everyone seemed to appreciate the opportunity to express reasons for thankfulness.  One young man who attends regularly gave eloquent expressions of gratitude to the Lord for protection last week.  

It was dark by the time we left the Bluff and drove home.  We knew that there were folk down there who had wondered if we would return, and we have been able to put their minds at rest.  We affirmed that, by God’s grace, we will continue to bring the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ into an area that truly needs that light.

Gunfire in the Bluff

December 4, 2011

It was just after 5:30 in the evening when the first shots rang out.  The Bible study had been going very well.  It had started on time at five o’clock, and discussion on the topic of Thanksgiving had been lively.  We had a total of fourteen people in attendance, only one of which was a child.  I was sitting on the wall; Frank’s sister Gini, visiting from Richmond, Virginia, was standing at the end of the wall and, other than Frank, everyone else was sitting on the steps of the burned-out church building where we meet.  To begin with I thought little of the sound of the gunshots, as we had heard them before from at least half a block away, and on those occasions we had not been under any threat.  However, after a volley of about 8 – 10 of them, presumably coming from a semi-automatic weapon, it seemed prudent to slip off the wall and down onto the steps with the other folk.  Frank, still standing on the sidewalk, having seen the shooter in the intersection, shooting north up Brawley Drive, and then fleeing west on Kennedy, called the police.  When the shooting stopped I looked around and saw one person lying face down on the ground outside the convenience store, but he did not appear to have been hit.  Then the second round of shooting started.  Gini had not yet ducked down, and from her vantage point she saw another man running south on Brawley, in our direction, firing south down the road.  At this point, discretion being the better part of valour, she, along with the rest of us hit the steps again, and at this point it dawned on me that this was for real.  This time, my face was down on the concrete.  I imagine we were all praying that the Lord would protect us, and Gini was doing so out loud.  Frank was still standing on the sidewalk talking to the 911 operator who told him that she could hear the shots being fired, and Gini and I yelled to him to get down.  Some of the details are fuzzy, but at that point Gini and Billie saw a white SUV, with its windows down, come south on Brawley past our steps, with all four occupants bearing weapons.  Frank, still standing on the sidewalk, had his back to them and did not see them.  At that point they were not firing, and we are not sure which of the 12 – 15 shots that we heard just prior to this came from the car and which from the runner on foot.  Two cars, Amy’s and ours, were between us and the SUV as it went by, and at some point Frank sought the safety of the car.  Shortly afterwards a man came over and yelled us to get out of the area.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to stand up, but we all did so, and the group quickly dispersed.  The local folk just “disappeared” except for Billie and her son, who have been attending for a couple of weeks.  Billie, who lives in the neighbourhood, is actively involved in trying to bring about change in the Bluff, and appreciates our efforts every Lord’s Day.   We threw the board and easel and the cooler into the trunk in a haphazard manner and Billie, Amy and Frank backed their cars away from the intersection to Jett and, still in reverse, along Jett and around onto Griffin.  There we parked and regrouped.   There were no more gunshots.  Shortly after that, which was about five minutes from the time Frank dialed 911, the first police car arrived followed almost immediately by three more.  Blue lights, but no sirens.  The police were only mildly interested in the situation, telling us that what we had experienced was not unusual for this area.  They didn’t take a statement, taking note only of the fact that the car with the four gunmen was a white SUV.

Having lived in the Bluff prior to undergoing successful drug rehabilitation, a regular member of our group, Linda, had some valuable insights which she shared with Amy as she was being driven back to her apartment.  In fact, before Bible study began, Linda had indicated that she was not comfortable with so many people whom she didn’t recognise congregating at the intersection.  She had previously shared with us that the drug dealers and particularly the drug “kingpin” occasionally loiter in the area while the study is going on, and that if they did not give their approval to this activity they would have made sure that we would have been run off by now.  Linda also believes that if the kingpin had been there on Sunday, the gunfire would not have occurred, or that he would have made sure we were protected.  Apparently he holds an elevated status which is highly respected in the drug community.  Linda also said that, even though the police may not show much interest in black-on-black violence, there would be a lot of interest, and hence disruptions to the drug dealers’ business, if white workers were targeted or caught in crossfire.

Before we each went our separate ways, Billie was very encouraging to Frank, telling him that he doesn’t realise how much good he is doing.  She told him that the devil is at the intersection where we meet, and he wants to disrupt our ministry.

As Frank, Gini and I drove home, we noted the irony of the Bible study earlier, which was the second of two studies on the topic of Thanksgiving.  One of the things that Frank had been explaining to the group was God’s sovereignty, and that, even though we may not understand why certain things happen to us, we are to be grateful for all of God’s providences.  Naturally, our hearts were full of thanksgiving for the Lord’s watch-care and protection over us that evening.  We acknowledged that he had given us this experience for a reason, and that he was in complete control of every bullet.

Scripture tells us to have no anxiety about anything but to take everything to God in prayer.  Never-the-less, we need to show wisdom and discretion with regard to taking sensible precautions, and Frank, Amy and I have already discussed the possibility of some changes.  We don’t anticipate this being a regular problem, as it is the first time that gunfire this close has happened in twenty months of ministering here.  However, one thing we will do is to make sure that anyone who volunteers to join us on the steps understands the fact that issues can arise.

The real Battle of the Bluff is being fought in the spiritual realm, even as it plays out in the streets.  Nothing will happen to us that is not in accordance with the will of the real “Kingpin” of the Bluff, namely the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Please continue to pray for us as we continue the battle for the hearts and minds of the men, women and children who reside in this sad and violent area.  Psalm 34:7.


Downtown Update

February 26, 2011

We have had some exciting developments recently in our downtown ministry.  We are becoming much more widely recognized, and usually have at least a few residents of the Bluff sitting on the burned-out church steps or wall waiting for us to arrive.  We are able to wander the streets inviting more people to come without feeling uncomfortable or in any kind of danger.  We are particularly pleased when we have a number of children in attendance.  The children love Miss Amy, who holds “Sunday School” on the second set of steps.  Particular fans of hers are 13 year old Jenario, and his sister 9 year old Miyani who are there almost every week.  They warm our hearts with their big smiles and hugs.  Jenario is very sharp, and often sits in on the adult side, enjoying answering the questions that Frank poses by way of going over the major points of the previous week’s lesson.  He is learning a lot.

During the bitterly cold winter days the Lord still brought people to hear his Word taught.  On one occasion when it was so frigid that we knew we could not stay outdoors, one of our regular families invited us into its living room.  On another cold December day Frank and I arrived by ourselves as Bob was not with us and Amy was out of town.  We seemed to be unable to attract anyone to the steps and eventually Frank got started with me being the only person in “class”.  However, the Lord honoured Frank’s “stubbornness” and it was not long before people started joining us, and we ended up with eleven people!  The only day that we could not make it in was December 26th, because of lingering snow and icy conditions.  (That was the day that we had to delay the Alpharetta service until the afternoon).

Frank believes that the ministry would have more impact if a way could be found to purchase a house in the neighbourhood which would be made available rent-free to someone who would be willing to function as an “anchor” to the ministry.  A house that could fit our needs would run in the range of $10,000 to $15,000.  It would also be used to hold the Bible study indoors on cold and inclement Lord’s Day evenings, and maybe facilitate other aspects of the ministry.  He is working with a Christian realtor to investigate the possibilities.  We were very blessed to meet a young African-American ministerial intern whose mother was raised in the area and went to the school there.  He intends to join us at the Bible studies on a regular basis, and came for the first time last Lord’s Day.  He enjoyed the experience very much, and it was obvious that others there felt a real connection with him as he engaged them in meaningful conversation.

In mid-January three young men from Erskine Seminary visited for the weekend in order to experience our Atlanta ministry.  On the Saturday they went with Frank and the realtor to look at several of the houses in the neighborhood which are on the market.  Several of the residents who recognized Frank called out cheery greetings to him (as in “hey, Rev”) and even offered input and advice where they had knowledge of the buildings.  Frank also took our guests to the Varsity in order to taste some local colour!  Then they joined us the following evening and really enjoyed the experience.  We had a total of twenty people in and around the steps that evening.

We have a dream that one day we could claim for Christ the burned-out church building on whose steps we park ourselves every Lord’s Day afternoon!  But that really is the stuff of dreams as it is currently on the market for $220,000!  And, of course, it would cost a tremendous amount to give it a roof and make it usable.  Hopefully, however, if and when it does sell there will be no problem with the new owner about our continuing to minister there.

We are always aware of the spiritual battle that rages around us on the corner of Kennedy and Brawley.  Satan doesn’t like us bringing the light of the gospel into his domain.  So I would covet your continued prayers for the people of that neighbourhood, made in the image of God but in desperate need of being reconciled to him.