Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People engages with Atlanta
by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service/Photos by Rich Copley
ATLANTA — The woman from Iraq was dressed completely in black.
It was the first time she had been to Refugee Family Literacy at Memorial Drive Ministries in Stone Mountain, Georgia in two weeks. When Jennifer Green, director of the program, asked what had happened, she learned the woman’s brother had been killed by a car bomb in Iraq.
Green gave the woman a hug, told her she was sad for her, and took her to class, explaining to her teacher what had happened. It was an English-as-a-second-language class for mothers of children in the program’s preschool.
As the woman’s classmates mourned with her, Green said the teacher told them that in her culture, “when someone is feeling sad, I give them a card and tell them that I am sad for them.”
So, the teacher passed out paper and colored pencils and said, “let’s make cards” for their mourning classmate. When the teacher was done, she took her card to the student and said, “I just want you to know I am so sad for you, and I love you, and I’m glad you’re here,” and kissed her on the forehead.
She turned to gather the cards from the students, but saw they were coming forward.
A student from Myanmar gave the Iraqi woman her card, said something in Burmese and kissed her.
Then a student from Eritrea brought her card to the woman, spoke, and kissed her.
Then a student from Somalia did the same, and it went on.
Seven different languages came together to deliver a universal message of compassion in this classroom, this community on the outskirts of Atlanta.
That was one of numerous stories members of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) heard during a Friday morning visit to Memorial Drive Ministries, one of several Atlanta-area organizations the group connected with during its late September meeting in Georgia’s capital city.
While part of their time in Atlanta was devoted to telling people in the Atlanta area how SDOP could work with them in grant workshops and other engagements, including visiting area clergy and congregations, the committee also spent time learning about what is already happening in the Atlanta area. Members engaged with groups including the thriving immigrant community of Clarkston, which has a strong connection to Memorial Drive Ministries (MDM); people still working for civil rights and justice in inner-city Atlanta; and the burgeoning Korean church community in the area.
“The site visit in Clarkston … is a reflection of the diversity in Atlanta and around the Greater Atlanta area,” said the Rev. Aisha Brooks-Lytle, Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. “To have national partners in local ministry engagement and have local ministry engagement to see how they fit into the larger landscape of the PC(USA) was really affirming and life-giving.”
Before a Friday morning panel discussion with leaders at MDM, which is based at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, SDOP coordinator the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson told the audience, “This is so SDOP.”
A place to find community
Based at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, where the Rev. George Tatro is the head pastor, committee leaders and members were impressed by how the church is engaging in ministry through housing the many programs there and how it could serve as a model for other PC(USA) churches.
“It is a wonderful idea and opportunity,” SDOP National Committee Member the Rev. Gail Porter Nelson said. “If a church has a big enough space and can open up that space, maybe other churches can model this.”
The Rev. David Roth, director of MDM, said, “A lot of times when people are newcomers to an area … and it’s especially true for people who are displaced by war and violence, it’s hard to find a sense of belonging and place with people. That happens on our campus a lot, and it’s something we really celebrate.”
The SDOP visit included a walk-through of several of the ministries’ programs geared toward providing the growing community of people who have emigrated to the U.S. with skills they need to thrive.
In the Refugee Family Literacy program, mothers from a variety of backgrounds can come learn English while their children learn the basics in preschool.
But there is more to learn at Memorial Drive.
Doris Mukangu, Director of Amani Women’s Center, showed the committee the sewing school at the Center, where women learn to sew and make complex garments. The participants learn on industrial sewing machines, preparing them for commercial work. Each graduate of the program receives her own sewing machine, and some have created home-based businesses.
“We’re excited to grow and nurture leadership within the program,” Mukangu said, adding that business training is part of the program.
One level down, the committee was ushered into Just Bakery, where a group of aspiring bakers from countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Bhutan, and Nepal were creating a variety of items from cookies and cakes to a popular granola.
The bakery, directed by Leah Lonsbury, has received national attention, including a potential appearance on “Ellen.”
At the end of the visit, the proprietors opened for sales and committee members opened their wallets. And that was not their last chance to take something home from their visit.
Later Friday afternoon, the SDOP committee bus pulled down a narrow side street in Clarkston, purported to be the most ethnically diverse square mile in the United States because many refugee and immigrant families have settled there.
Invited into a building that was nondescript until passing through the front door, committee members gathered with community leaders in the Amani Women Center’s store over a common bonding element: coffee.
“Coffee is a universal language of welcome,” said Walt Anderson of Refuge Coffee Co., a Clarkston business that is specifically geared toward giving people in the immigrant community job training and mentorship. “Refuge Coffee exists to tell a more beautiful immigrant story.”
While enjoying the coffee, committee members saw and purchased wares created by the Clarkston community, many of whom acquired their skills at Memorial Drive.
“Our diversity is our strength,” Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said to the committee members. “That’s what makes America America and Clarkston Clarkston.”
In addition to sharing powerful cups of coffee, the SDOP committee members shopped for colorful garments, many of which came from the same sewing shop they had just been in a few hours before.
‘We are the village’
The drive back to Atlanta was hosted by Georgia Stand-Up, an Atlanta-based organizing and advocacy group. En route to the King Center, which includes the crypt of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King, as well as their eternal flame, Georgia Stand-Up Executive Director Deborah Scott pointed out sites that illustrated the “Tale of Two Cities” that she says is Atlanta, a city of haves and have nots.
Auburn Avenue, she noted, “used to be the richest black street in America,” she said, until infrastructure such as a highway and increasing property values took their toll on the community.
At the King Center, the Committee heard from people fighting for justice in Atlanta, including a couple of speakers from groups that benefited from SDOP funding.
“People are always talking about how bad the kids were,” said Reba Harris of Friends of Collier Heights Park – Women Leading the Way to a Healthy Community, a 2008 SDOP grant recipient. “I said let’s stop talking and let’s start walking and do something with the children in the community.
“It does take a village, and we are the village for the children in our community.”
Standing on the sidewalk in front of the eternal flame, she told the committee members how the SDOP grant helped them offer health and wellness classes in the community. Over the years the program has grown, with more grants for acquiring skills such as reading, computer coding, and robotics.
“We cannot thank you enough,” Harris said. “You honored our grant and you changed our community.”
The committee also heard from DeBorah Williams, who worked with SDOP receiving a 2008 grant for Life’s Unlimited, an ex-offender support and advocacy group, and in 2017 for Georgia Women in Agriculture Association’s West End Belt-line Farmers Market.
During its three-day stay in Atlanta, the SDOP committee heard about more Atlanta and Georgia projects from churches engaging directly with their neighborhoods to efforts to reach out to people detained at Stewart Detention Center to the south in Lumpkin and their families. The day before the national committee meeting started, members Rebecca Reyes, Wesley Woo, Phil Tom, and Larry Low met with members of the Korean Presbyterian community in Atlanta to both hear about work being done in the city and talk about how SDOP could engage with the community.
“It was really great to see our Korean churches involved, to be a hub for the other communities of color — of Asian descent — coming together to see what are the ways that grassroots organizations are working in the neighborhood,”said Brooks-Lytle, the Atlanta Executive Presbyter.
To her the engagement, and the chance for committee members to see work being done as well as to talk to people in the city about how they could work with SDOP, highlighted a natural connection between the national church and the Atlanta community.
“There’s an organic thing between the type of organizations that SDOP offers grants to and the work that is happening down here,” Brooks-Lytle said. “To see it connected to some of our churches is life-giving and healthy.”
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Categories: Advocacy & Social Justice, Matthew 25, Peace & Justice
Tags: collier heights park - women leading the way to a healthy community, georgia stand-up, just bakery, memorial drive ministries, Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, presbytery of greater atlanta, refugee coffee co., rev. aisha brooks-lytle, Ted Terry
Ministries: Compassion, Peace and Justice, Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People