Apr. 22, 2013
The garden adjacent to Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, Georgia, isn’t exactly paradise. It’s more like an empty lot that has a few picnic tables and a half dozen raised beds growing bulbous purple eggplant, lush leafy lettuces, and fancy onions.
But four Candler alumni are doing whatever is humanly possible to transform the space and the surrounding neighborhood into a modern-day Eden.
“All I know is that God is good, and these people are good,” says Paul Jones, who lives behind the garden in a transitional house run by Centenary staff. “They’ve given me a roof over my head, food to eat, and kept me out of trouble.”
Jones is part of a wide spectrum of residents who live in Centenary’s neighborhood, which once was a thriving, middle-class community with quaint turn-of-the-century homes, safe parks, and prosperous businesses. In the 1960s, the community lost its innocence when a new section of Interstate 75 snaked its way toward Macon and split it in two.
The Rev. Tim Bagwell 78T, Centenary’s volunteer senior pastor, said that by 2005 the neighborhood had become the most dangerous part of town and church membership had dwindled to 30 because people were too afraid to attend services.
“We faced a hard decision: either close our doors or keep them open and try to revitalize the community. We decided to stay and go in a different direction theologically by focusing on advocacy,” he says.
Bagwell, whose full-time job is director of New and Revitalized Congregational Development for the South Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church, has approached the church’s theology of advocacy with a two-part strategy: build relationships within the community and work within the system to bring about change.
“We believed if we pursued both, then significant, long-lasting change would be found,” says Bagwell.
And he was right. By 2012, church membership had reached 280, and attendance at Sunday services was averaging 275. “That’s a percentage unheard of,” says Bagwell. “Even though we’re a small church, we’re doing an amazing kind of ministry.”
Centenary’s ministry is working because of the remarkable relationship-building skills of Bagwell and three additional Candler graduates: the Rev. Helen Willoughby 98T, minister of pastoral care, the Rev. Stacey Harwell 10T, minister of community building, and Sarah Gerwig-Moore 02L 02T, a professor of law at Mercer University, which is right across the street from the church.
Willoughby has been a fearless champion for Centenary’s Hispanic and homeless populations, and Bagwell gives her large credit for the church’s services and programs that support these communities.
Sundays at Centenary start at 8 a.m. with breakfast for the homeless. At 11 a.m., English-speaking and Spanish-speaking services take place, sometimes followed by a community barbecue or picnic in the garden. Throughout the week, Centenary partners with a local technical college to offer English as a Second Language courses in its community center, which attract not only Spanish-speaking residents, but also their English-speaking neighbors who are trying “to connect with their Spanish brothers and sisters in our community,” says Bagwell.
Willoughby understands that making people feel as though they matter and are welcomed has been a key to the church’s rebirth.
"My journey has been a continuous revelation of God's love and grace for me and the people I serve. It is this revelation that motivates me to remain faithful to my call even in the midst of questions and challenges," she says.
Harwell and Gerwig-Moore were strangers until the neighborhood revitalization initiative made them powerful partners. Gerwig-Moore served as the first co-chair of Macon's College Hill Corridor Commission, a “town and gown” collaboration that is responsible for administering more than $10 million in grant funding for the area’s rebuilding efforts. Harwell is a member of the Commission, laser-focused on making sure residents of all economic levels benefit from the grant money.
Not only was Gerwig-Moore instrumental in securing the funding, she has guided the expenditures to create a new mixed use retail-residential development in the neighborhood, improve a large neighborhood park, install Macon’s first bike lanes, build sidewalks, and start a concert series and free movie nights in the park. Her next challenge, now that the neighborhood is coming back to life, is to keep property tax rates affordable so that it can preserve its diverse mix of residents.
"Candler taught me that every person can be an agent of change," she says. “Law is not always as reflective as it should be, but my MTS degree prepared me to think about my work as a lawyer in terms of being an advocate. I had no idea how professionally significant that would be!"
Harwell complements these efforts by using her knowledge of how the grant funding process works to involve the neighborhood’s poorer residents in the revitalization activities.
“I saw that a number of grants were going to middle class residents, and I wanted to remind College Hill that there are poor people in this neighborhood who need to have a voice, too,” says Harwell.
Harwell secured part of a grant award to start a Roving Listener program, which enlists teenagers to interview people in the neighborhood and report on what they learn. Last summer, Harwell hired, trained—and armed with an iPad and notebooks—nearly 20 middle and high school students to go door-to-door and talk with residents about their lives and their concerns about the neighborhood.
What did they find? Longtime residents revealed they are still fearful of crime, an issue Harwell is sharing with various community organizations so they can work together to make things safer. But the program also discovered a number of positive resident “assets.” Among them: A local historian, who is now engaged in helping budding journalists at Mercer University understand the context of their work, a 94-year-old woman who still makes quilts by hand and has now offered to teach others in the community, and a temari yarn ball artist who is showing homeless residents how to make the decorative items as holiday gifts.
Adds Bagwell, “The Roving Listener program was a game-changer for us and the city on two levels. First, it was a gift to the community in terms of listening to and really hearing people who so often go unheard, but also in helping the kids learn how to listen and process what they heard. Plus, many of them earned money for the first time, and we helped them think through how to handle it.”
Harwell’s seat on the Commission also led her to conceive a plan for how to help homeless men get transportation to work. “I knew that one of the components of the revitalization plan was to make the city more bike friendly, and I also knew that 500 of Macon’s 800 homeless are men who have a hard time getting to work because the city’s public transportation system doesn’t have enough routes and buses to adequately serve the city,” Harwell said.
Her solution was to create a men’s bicycle ministry. The program not only supports the revitalization plan and gives people transportation, it provides income to a homeless man and a man with disabilities who repair the bikes—and it keeps bikes that were going to be discarded out of landfills.
To promote the bike ministry, Harwell used her connections at a local Macon television station and soon was featured on the news “pedaling” for bike donations. The results? More than 200 people came to the open house to donate their rides. To date, Centenary has given away 80 bikes.
“We applied for funds to fix 100 bikes in one year,” said Harwell. “Nine months into it, we’ve repaired more than 175, so we’ll likely double our goal.”
The results of the dedicated work of Candler’s alumni were apparent at a recent “Taste of the Garden” event, where neighbors of all shapes, sizes, colors—even species—came together to sample the garden’s fall harvest and learn from organic farmers and master gardeners how to grow nutritious food in their backyards.
Gerwig-Moore was there, singing as a member of the “Good Country People” band. Harwell was too, warmly greeting everyone by name and connecting them with what they were there to do. As the event’s coordinator, Harwell made sure displays were set up, food was served, and even more bicycles were given away. She took a few minutes to walk among the garden beds and teach some of the children about how seeds turn into plants. She even dutifully searched for a place for a big white duck, who’d come to the party with an organic farmer and a big red hen, to take a swim.
The garden adjacent to Centenary is thriving. And so are the people, like Paul Jones, who tend it. He waters, weeds, and harvests the garden in return for Harwell helping him study for his GED.
“Whatever help Stacey needs, I’ll do it,” says Jones.
And it appears Centenary’s team is doing the same for its neighborhood.
“The garden and the entire revitalization effort have been a blessing for those inside the community and for those outside of it because we’ve given them eyes to see each other,” says Bagwell. “We’ve been able to bring together people who wouldn’t ordinarily come together.”
Is that paradise? No, but in today’s world, it’s pretty darn close.
April Bogle named her daughter “Taylor” after the Indiana street where she spent her childhood.