When Teaching Elder Danny Iverson learned that volunteers from the 2018 General Assembly in Atlanta wanted to help improve his neighborhood, he turned to the locals for ideas.
“We’ve spent a lot of time listening to and building relationships with our neighbors,” Iverson explains. “[We asked them] for their ideas and what they would like to see happen.”
Their response was to have a clean-up day in the city’s Grove Park community on Elmwood, a street littered with crack houses, abandoned buildings, and overgrown lots, and where many of them live.
With General Assembly’s theme of “Love God and Love Neighbor,” members of the host committee decided that commissioners and their families should have an opportunity to love the neighbors of their host city. Restore Life, a community development corporation Iverson leads, was handpicked, along with a few other local ministries, to receive both volunteer and financial support.
“[A lot of our people] don’t have money, what the world says is valuable, but in those moments there was a sense of our humanness, our oneness, and how we all need the same Savior to the same extent.”
Iverson, who planted Shalom City Church, a young PCA congregation in Grove Park, and is a fifth-generation Presbyterian minister, says the effort corresponds with Metro Atlanta Presbytery’s increasing focus on racial reconciliation and mercy ministry.
“When [the host committee] came to us with the idea,” Iverson said. “I told them it can’t be them coming to help poor people in our community. What we’re going for is true, authentic interdependent relationships that are calling the image of God out of everyone.”
So the committee gave the reins to Iverson, who then took direction from locals—even including some pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers—about what the neighborhood needed most.
Iverson explains his reasoning: “We often start with the Fall—‘Hey, you’re a sinner. You shouldn’t be doing this.’ People we work with already know they’re sinners. They already know this world is jacked up—the amount of abuse, and systemic stuff from families and generational poverty, no one hides that stuff. But when you start with the fact that everyone can be a blessing because they’re made in the image of God, that they have intrinsic value given to them by their Creator, it calls out the dignity we all share and opens up doors for honest conversations and deeper relationships.”
Rebuilding from the Inside
So, on June 13, 2018, members of Shalom City, neighborhood youth, drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes, worked alongside commissioners’ family members and volunteers from the local chapters of the Salvation Army and the Boys & Girls Club. The result was a street free of weeds and trash, a farmed community garden, and a freshly painted shed. Afterward, all of the volunteers shared a lunch prepared by a neighborhood chef, a former prisoner who had successfully completed Restore Life’s job development program.
“[A lot of our people] don’t have money, what the world says is valuable, but in those moments there was a sense of our humanness, our one-ness, and how we all need the same Savior to the same extent. All of us are addicts, our addictions just come out in different ways … at the end of the day we are beloved image bearers of God whom Jesus came to seek and save,” says Iverson.
General Assembly also collected an offering to be distributed among the various recipient ministries. Restore Life funneled its portion of the gift toward its African-American leadership fund, particularly to help those who run a recording studio that trains young adults in the neighborhood to engineer, design, and produce high-quality hip-hop music.
“When Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall, his strategy was to take the resources he had and put them into the people’s hands so they could rebuild the portion of the wall in front of their houses,” Iverson says. “Nehemiah didn’t come in and push people out, he included them in the restoration and empowered a local-led social justice movement while pointing them back toward God.”