By Chris Moon
Dan Garrett’s life in ministry has come full circle.
These days, the former pastor serves as director of church relations for Christian City, a nonprofit that serves vulnerable kids and seniors on a 500-acre campus near Atlanta. He speaks daily with church leaders around the country about how Christian City has changed countless lives in its 57-year history.
It’s a story Garrett learned long ago.
He began his career in youth ministry. Garrett served 11 years at Mt. Carmel Christian Church in Atlanta, starting in 1981. He had 200 kids in his Sunday night youth group.
One Sunday, two white vans pulled into the church parking lot, and about a dozen girls poured out of them, along with a lady named Mama Grace.
“Who is this?” Garrett remembers asking.
As it turns out, they were from a group home at Christian City. Mama Grace was Grace Duke, their energetic housemother.
Those girls became a fixture in Garrett’s youth group for years. He would never forget them.
Garrett’s ministry career took the normal twists and turns. He had his own full-time speaking ministry. He pastored with small-town and suburban churches. He helped plant a church in an infamous Atlanta strip club building.
But five years ago, he was invited onto the staff at Christian City. Now, he’s spreading the word from church to church about the same organization that shook up his youth group 40 years ago.
Full circle, indeed.
“The ministry thrust doesn’t change. It just has different expressions,” Garrett said. “It’s still loving kids, seeing the good in them, and pointing them toward Jesus. That’s their hope.”
THE MOST VULNERABLE
Christian City was founded in 1965, in part out of the ministry work of the late pastor Jim Dyer of Southwest Christian Church in Atlanta. Donations made it possible to build a group home for kids on 50 acres of land.
Independent Christian churches and churches of Christ were the original supporters of the effort. Garrett said churches for years took up a fifth Sunday offering to support Christian City.
It was a rare feat for the independent Christian church movement.
“It really became a place to rally around and a point of pride with churches that aren’t used to cooperating and coordinating,” Garrett said. “It became a shining star.”
During Garrett’s time at Mt. Carmel in the 1980s—after those white vans showed up from Christian City’s group home—Garrett immediately could see the impact on the lives of foster kids.
In those days, foster kids would stay in their group homes at Christian City until they graduated from high school. Christian City’s graduation rate was 100 percent—well above the 19 percent of the wider foster care system, Garrett said.
Garrett even has a pastor friend who came to Christian City in the second grade and graduated from high school while living there.
Most of those kids had the same houseparents during their entire stay at Christian City.
“Most of those houseparents retired on campus,” Garrett said.
But Christian City has become much more than a group home for foster kids. Through the years, the ministry grew. More land was added. And today, 1,000 people, from kids to senior citizens, are living on 500 acres of land near the Atlanta airport.
The vision always was to build a place to serve vulnerable people of all ages.
Christian City now has assisted living, nursing, and subsidized housing facilities for seniors, and more than 300 people are living in retirement homes on the campus.
Christian City has a “Safe Place” for runaway and homeless youth, providing them homes for up to 21 days.
The nonprofit also has a foster and adoption agency, and a program for kids who age out of foster care, providing work training to help them move forward into adulthood.
Christian City’s newest program is designed to promote healthy families by working with parents and kids to help prevent those families from disintegrating. For example, the program has helped single moms who are struggling to find housing or work.
Christian City even has a home on its campus for adults with autism.
In short, it has a little bit of everything when it comes to helping the most vulnerable in the community.
“Lots of places do one piece of this,” Garrett said, but it’s hard to find one that does all of these things.
LOVE FOR YOUTH MINISTRY
Garrett’s work now revolves around connecting pastors and churches to the work of Christian City. The organization needs to raise $6 million each year.
It does so through support from individuals and churches. Christian City also seeks grant funding.
Garrett said the late S. Truett Cathy, who started Chick-fil-A, was a loyal financial supporter of Christian City, helping to build a thrift store on the campus—named Graceland, after “Mama Grace” Duke.
Garrett’s work is focused in the churches.
“The core remains the Christian church. . . . So many have stayed loyal to us for years and years,” Garrett said, although he said he also reaches out to churches outside of the Restoration Movement.
When Garrett travels to visit churches, he still preaches regularly. When he spoke to Christian Standard, he was working to set up Christian City’s booth at the International Conference on Missions in Columbus, Ohio.
Garrett said he still keeps up with some of the girls from Christian City who became the backbone of his youth group. One of them is married to a minister.
“My heart has always been on kids and youth ministry, no matter what I’ve done,” Garrett said.
He said it saddens him that the work of Christian City is so needed in this society, but he said trauma and dysfunction continue to harm children and adults alike—regardless of economic status.
“This is across the board,” he said. “It grieves me that it’s still a need, but I am thrilled that Christian City is expanding [to meet the need].”
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colo.