By Wye Huxford
There was a buzz on campus early on the morning of April 19, 2007, as students at Atlanta Christian College began assembling in front of the Hathcock Center. Normally these students would be headed to class in Hathcock at about that time . . . and as we all know, there is seldom much of a buzz about early morning classes for college students! But this was going to be a different day—it was Spring Ministry Day.
Classes were canceled and offices were closed. For the first time in its history, ACC was undertaking a project that would involve the entire campus community.
The academic year began in the fall of 2006, with the vision of creating a Christian community of young adults and their leaders committed to becoming more like Christ than ever before. The spring semester added a new word to the idea of community—we wanted to become a transforming community. Part of the ministry plan to create such a community was this radical idea of getting every student, faculty member, administrator, and staff member to commit to a day in service. Little did we realize how transforming it would be.
Finding a Place
In the sprawling metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia, there are many opportunities for ministry. A wide array of urban ministries are ongoing witnesses to the gospel in our city. The challenge was to find a ministry large enough to handle our entire college community at once.
Providentially, ACC alumnus Randy Barnhart was the speaker for the first regular chapel service of the spring semester. When I mentioned my desire to find a place where the ACC community could make a difference by serving together, Barnhart—who is associate minister of Peachtree Christian Church in Atlanta—had an answer. After chapel, he talked with me about a ministry in which Peachtree Christian is investing—one he thought could handle a big crowd of volunteers on one day. A quick drive downtown that afternoon, and a brief tour of the ministry known as City of Refuge, was the birth of what will become a long-term relationship of ministry and education working hand in hand.
City of Refuge is located on the west side of downtown Atlanta, in ZIP code 30314. Seventy-four percent of the children in that ZIP code live in single-adult homes, and many of those adults are not actually the parents of the children. The dropout rate there is the highest in Georgia. So is the murder rate. So is the drug abuse rate. So is the rate of arrests for prostitution and other social ills. More people in state and federal prisons in Georgia are from 30314 than any other ZIP code in the state.
If we wanted our students and college family to have a transforming experience, it would be difficult to find a better location. And the more we learned about this ministry, the more convinced we were that this was a partnership worth pursuing.
Housed in warehouses with space exceeding 270,000 square feet, City of Refuge has room to grow, a commitment to urban mission fields that is more than admirable, and a heart open to being overrun by a mass of college students on a spring day in April.
Planning the Day
This spring, the number of full-time-equivalent students at Atlanta Christian College was approximately 380. We started talking about City of Refuge in chapel, discipleship groups, classrooms, and with student government and student ministry team leaders. We felt sure there would be a good response, but in all honesty, giving college students a day off from class on a perfect spring day and expecting them to go to volunteer in the worst neighborhood in Georgia was a bit of a stretch. Jesus might have said, “O you of little faith!”
Transporting our students was a challenge; we didn’t need the ministry’s parking lot jammed with our vehicles. We used college and local church vans and buses, and the parents of two of our first-year students provided a 60-passenger bus.
Loading up that morning, the caravan of buses, vans, cars, and even a bicycle or two looked like a modern version of the exodus. In a significant way, we were headed to “the promised land” of becoming a transforming community. When we began the day with worship, more than 300 of us were there. That’s 75 percent of our entire college family—probably a national record of sorts!
Doing the Work
Bruce Deel, executive director of City of Refuge, led the worship service. Tony Johns, staff member at the ministry, arranged for a quick tour of the place, and then we all began working. Some painted walls; others painted murals. Some cleared a kudzu-covered hillside at the rear of the property into an area ready to be seeded with grass for a potential amphitheater. Underneath the kudzu, we found symbols of the real story of that neighborhood—thousands of discarded bottles that once contained what is both an escape from, and cause of poverty, homelessness, and sin of all kinds.
Lots of work was done in the thrift store—sorting and arranging clothes, and helping Carolyn “Whoopi” Strozier, a former drug addict now redeemed by the gospel and serving as manager of the thrift store, make it a more appealing place. We cleaned huge warehouses, washed windows, cleaned and cleared the yard at City of Refuge’s nearby home for women, and tackled a host of other tasks.
Quite a few students ventured out on the streets of the most dangerous neighborhood in Georgia, and talked with lost people about Jesus. Food was taken to homeless men sleeping under bridges. If you can think of something that needs to be done in an urban ministry, there is a good chance that students, faculty, and staff from Atlanta Christian College did it on April 19 at City of Refuge.
Changing Our Lives
Early in the day, student comments went something like “this is a good thing” and “I’m glad we came.” Later in the day, the tone of comments shifted to, “Can we do this again next year?” and quickly changed to, “Can we do this in both the fall and spring semesters?” Before the day was over, students were saying, “We must do this every semester.”
Most of our students had never seen a neighborhood like 30314. It was a cross-cultural experience for them to rival any trip to a foreign land. That in itself has great value. Being Jesus to such downtrodden people changed lives that day—and not just the lives of those ministered to! In addition to those kinds of blessings, relationships among students with each other, with staff and faculty members, and with the staff of City of Refuge were forged in the context of ministry; those relationships will be lasting and life-changing.
City of Refuge will never be the same—and neither will Atlanta Christian College. After we returned to campus, a picnic in Old Main Plaza was a celebration of what God had done through our college that day. Some students had to leave the picnic early because they were going back to City of Refuge that night to finish a project. Others were there over the weekend, finishing old projects and starting new ones. Students have now begun to volunteer for all sorts of ongoing ministries through City of Refuge.
Oddly enough, this project was scheduled during the week of the horrific massacre of students at Virginia Tech. The day before our project, several hundred ACC students gathered in the chapel for a student-led, student-developed prayer service for Virginia Tech students.
Local media found our ministry day interesting, but told us they couldn’t cover it because their time and resources were consumed by reporting on the awful news from Virginia Tech. Too bad they didn’t have a bit more foresight. What better way to help our culture understand that there is a better alternative to the violence that characterizes our culture than to see 300 college students—out of a pool of less than 400—give up a beautiful spring day to be Jesus to people living in the most violent neighborhood in Georgia.
Wye Huxford is vice president for student development and dean of the chapel at Atlanta Christian College. He also teaches in the college’s Department of Biblical Studies. He is a graduate of Atlanta Christian College and Cincinnati Bible Seminary.