The houses sent a mixed message about the neighborhood.
Some were ornately renovated, two-story craftsmen homes and of equal prestige were the American foursquare homes and craft bungalows. Sprinkled in between the delicate updates were dilapidated ones which displayed the wearing of years and the remanence of an abode that was once rich in youthful beauty. These held the hope of what could be; they pulled you in with the mystery of their story and the hope of restoration.
This is the neighborhood Kirkwood in Atlanta, Georgia. It is rich in history and heritage, and if each home could talk, they’d have compelling and troubling stories to tell of the people they housed— stories of hope and triumph and others of injustice and segregation.
Stories of the Community
Justin Schaeffer, pastor and leader of the non-profit, Kirkwood Cares, has heard some of these stories from residents who have lived in Kirkwood for decades. These stories put him on a path of kingdom work he did not expect—home and neighborhood restoration.
“Before I lived in Kirkwood, I lived in Oakhurst. My neighbor Miss Jean was 85. We became good friends when I helped her with the yard and stuff. She would introduce me to some neighbors, but as her friends passed away, I’d watch their houses get purchased for cash before a real estate sign even went up. They got knocked to the ground and a million dollar house went up,” said Schaeffer as he explained the origins of his passion for neighborhood restoration.
Schaeffer has lives in Kirkwood, and through his friendly demeanor and Kirkwood Cares, he’s gotten to know his neighbors. Many of his older neighbors are African American widows and widowers, and when they pass away wealthy Anglo-American families will likely move in.
“Pretty soon, this neighborhood that has this long 40-year history of these people living here and building a community is going to be erased and just completely washed out. It feels weird,” he Schaeffer.
Neighborhood Restoration Journey
His observations self-propelled him into various forms of research like affordable housing forums, service projects and conversations with the veterans of Kirkwood. As Schaeffer’s perspective and knowledge was shaped and reshaped by what he was learning about the housing inequality in Atlanta, he began to pray about how to engage the community as a church.
“We were praying about how to engage this neighborhood as a church in some sort of service…but we felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to pray and wait and not force anything because if we forced something, we felt like the neighbors would think we were trying to do something to get them to like us. And so, we prayed and waited,” explained Schaeffer.
God answered their prayers when Schaeffer found out about an organization in Kirkwood—Neighborhood in Need—that was doing home repairs for older, low-income families in Kirkwood. “I was like, whoa, this is my heart! Tell me how I can volunteer. And then within a week I was running the whole thing,” he said.
From there, Kirkwood Cares broke ground.
Kirkwood Cares is a committee of the Kirkwood Neighbors Organization (KNO) that identifies and provides critical repair support to Kirkwood residents such as wheelchair ramps, full bathroom renovations, roof, sewer, water heater repairs, etc.
For some in the church, it’s hard to see the connection between neighborhood restoration and the gospel. How could fixing a person’s roof or bathroom—or any form of justice and restorative work— connect to preaching of the gospel?
Schaeffer does not find the gospel and justice in opposition to one another but in tandem with what the Bible teaches.
“I hate that a lot of people feel like they have to toss out evangelical like stuff we hold in a closed hand to try to decide we’re going to care about justice,” he explained.
Gospel Proclamation through Community Restoration
In a increasingly secularized society, serving our communities in restorative work opens doors to compassionately demonstrate the gospel and verbally share it. For Schaeffer, community restoration through Kirkwood Cares has provided more evangelistic opportunities in a neighborhood that is decidedly not Christian.
“As I’ve been seeking to evangelize my neighbors here, they just don’t like the abstract argument about sin and God and heaven and hell without flesh, without showing them what God’s love looks like and what a life of service to him looks like. [Without that] you can’t even begin the conversation,” he said.
Schaefer does not feel the need to hide who he is. The relational capital he has built—even with those hostile to the faith—has allowed him to share the gospel and maintain good relationships. They see his good work through Kirkwood Cares, and they are won over by his love for the people around him, even when they disagree about spiritual matters.
“I have people say, ‘okay, I know this guy. I know he is in it for us.’ When I get the chance to talk about the atonement, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, people think I’m crazy, but they entertain me,” Shaeffer commented.
“I tend to get to the resurrection of Jesus Christ real fast. They don’t have a lot of examples of hardcore Bible believing, real heaven, real hell, atonement type Christians doing this. So, I tell them Jesus died for my sins. He cares about people and justice.”
Shaeffer’s gospel proclamation to his neighbors and the KNO is not always received with repentant hearts. More often, he is greeted with strange stares and the occasional shoulder shrug. But people still want to work with and for him and Kirkwood Cares. The power of a good reputation goes a long way in evangelism.
“People will be like ‘well I think you’re a bigot, but I love you. If I wasn’t doing what I was doing I think they’d be like ‘watch out for that guy’, but they’re like, ‘I love this guy.’ This keeps them in relationship with me, so we keep talking.”
Schaeffer’s vision for Kirkwood Cares is that it would become a tangible picture for all neighborhoods across Atlanta of what neighborhood restoration could look like, and it would cause neighborhoods to become more socio-economically and racially diverse.
“[In 10 years] I hope Kirkwood Cares causes Kirkwood to be a more socioeconomically and racially diverse and is a model for all the neighborhoods in Atlanta,” he said. “I desperately want to live in a socioeconomically and racially diverse neighborhood. I think it’s better for me. I think it’s better for my kids. I think it’s better for everybody.”
Learn more about how to discover needs in your community by downloading a ministry guide at sendrelief.org/ministry-guides/.
Learn more about Kirkwood Cares at facebook.com/kirkwoodcares.
Published January 28, 2020