Downtown Ministries in Athens, Ga., reaches out to kids who “see things no person should have to see,” says founder and pastor Hal Farnsworth.
Two 8-year-olds who participate in the ministry’s football program saw a woman set on fire by her boyfriend a few weeks ago. One of them told his coach, “I saw her socks burned into her legs.”
“That child was confronted with human depravity in ways that your average PCA college freshman is not,” said Farnsworth, who planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Athens in 1996 and began the inner city-focused Downtown Ministries in 2003. “That’s why we started Downtown Ministries—to share the hope of the gospel with those who weren’t in our natural spheres of influence.”
Farnsworth, a former Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) minister, started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in his living room 13 years ago with home Bible studies, but from the start he hoped to have a presence in downtown Athens.
“Athens is a cross-section of the U.S. with 100,000 people,” said Farnsworth, “including thousands of University of Georgia professors, 30,000 students, and descendants of founding fathers and slaves. It makes Athens a melting pot of cultural, religious, educational, and economic diversity.”
“From the beginning, our church’s philosophy of ministry was to take root downtown and change the city of Athens.”
So far, Redeemer has made significant progress, now operating church facilities out of a “miraculously acquired” 28,000-square foot old tire company. The four-acre church campus occupies half a block in downtown Athens, and draws hundreds of worshipers any given Sunday.
But the early success of the church still left Farnsworth restless. He longed to find a way to reach the un-churched who lived in the inner city neighborhoods surrounding Redeemer.
“I could see a housing project from the pulpit on Sunday mornings,” said Farnsworth, “and I kept asking myself, ‘How can we reach these people?’”
He had an idea. “I’ve bled and sweated with black guys, played football with them sharing the same goal. What about a community football team? It would create an opportunity to get involved with every single kid in the program and their families.”
“Way Over Our Heads”
The church started a single football team in 2003, with the simple goal of “taking aim at the poverty and brokenness of our neighbors.” The ministry has exploded, now involving 200 kids in football, basketball, cheerleading, and drumline programs.
Farnsworth has seen tremendous change in individual lives. “Many of them came into the football team completely undisciplined—they would get so upset and storm off the field over any little thing, like the other team scoring—but this is because their lives were so hard. One kid, Devante, had so much promise, but he was almost manic, way up and way down all the time. But we stayed in his life and kept mentoring him and now he’s a junior in high school and a starting running back—his coaches say he’s the most pleasant player to work with.”
Again and again, Farnsworth has seen kids who started off cynical soften over time as they see that the Downtown Ministries volunteers are in for the long haul. A number of families are coming to worship at Redeemer—half of Redeemer’s middle school youth group now is black, and a mother of one of the players was recently baptized.
“We’re here to hear the subplots,” he says. “When a whole community of believers gets involved, the kids know that you love them and that you’re not going anywhere. It’s normal now for them to hang out with our kids.”
But it isn’t always easy, Farnsworth says. “This takes a whole lot more work than a discipleship program. It’s every bit of your life all the time. But the cool thing is that anybody can do it.”
Now, Downtown Ministries’ growth is stretching the church in new ways. “This is way over our heads,” said Farnsworth. “We don’t have the resources to meet our needs. But that’s kingdom work—you can’t control all the pain and suffering you see. You just have to trust God.”
Recently, the city of Athens invited Downtown Ministries to be one of three organizations involved in mentoring for Clarke County, which is the fifth poorest county in the nation. This will allow the church to share the hope of the gospel with kids in need—creating spheres of influence to help reduce teen pregnancy, increase the graduation rate, and challenge kids to further education. And ultimately creating a community where 8-year-olds ask, “What kind of person would do something like this?” not in response to violence, but to love.