Working to better communities

Moderated by Rick Badie

Meet the Rev. Eric George Vickers, freshly minted senior pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church, located in a gritty Atlanta neighborhood commonly referred to as “The Bluff.” Vickers writes about providing a holistic ministry for those who attend the historic church as well as those who never grace its sanctuary. Elsewhere, two essays deal with the formation of a South DeKalb improvement association and next Thursday’s crime and safety summit in Sandy Springs.

Good can come from The Bluff

By Eric George Vickers

For years, I asked the Lord to place me in a position to best serve Him and His people. Consequently, the Lord sent me to “The Bluff” at the age of 25.

Upon accepting the call to lead Pilgrim Baptist Church, one of Atlanta’s historic congregations, a dual mantle of shepherd and social justice was thrust upon my broad but untested shoulders.

After surveying the surrounding community, conscience persuaded me that congregational preaching and administration was only half the battle that accompanied the demands of this inner-city pastorate. I soon realized the more daunting task was launching a new pastorate in an area that’s been rejected and relegated to an elephant graveyard.When they were known as places with black businesses and friendly and considerate neighbors, and anchored by engaged and thriving churches, the English Avenue and Vine City communities were preferred settling destinations for families.

Many community leaders and professional people reared generations of families in homes that have been reduced to aesthetic eyesores on blighted streets. Drug trafficking, gang activity and prostitution are now commonplace. In a community that once housed entrepreneurs, working-class jobs are scarce even for the most skilled laborers.

However, the image of our community seems to be as unfairly tattered as the homes on English Avenue. As I walked the neighborhood streets, I embraced children who only receive meals at school during the academic year. I talked to intelligent young men well-versed in law because of having stood on the wrong side of the courtroom. I spoke to single mothers who were evicted from slum housing.

Upon examining the struggles in our neighborhood, my humanity begged me to ask: Does God care about what happens in The Bluff?

Holy Scripture identifies Nazareth as the armpit of the Roman Empire. Nazareth was so far below pedestrian, it was widely accepted nothing good could come from it. Yet from the ghettos of Nazareth came the greatest example of sacrificial love, unbridled service and transformative power. God cared about all of His creation to the degree that He allowed Himself to be glorified from those reduced to spiritual, political and socio-economic weakness.

Upon this reflection, I realized God cares about what happens in The Bluff, but my church must also care. Meals must be served. Job fairs must be fair. Clothes must be distributed. Tutoring must be available. Counseling must be offered. Community centers must be re-opened. Sports stadium revenue must be evenly dispensed. Quality homes must rebuilt. Guns must be bought back. And above all, the Gospel must be preached.

The mantle of this ministry must shoulder the commitment to not only speak to those worshipping inside stained-glass walls, but also speak for those outside those walls. There can be no joy of neighborhood resurrection separate from the toils of community cross-bearing. If we commit to this labor, something good can come from The Bluff.

The Rev. Eric George Vickers is senior pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Change afoot in South DeKalb County

By Kathryn Rice

A new movement has begun in South DeKalb County. A grassroots organization, the South DeKalb Improvement Association Inc., has taken on the major issues facing businesses and residents to improve the economic viability of the region. And it’s making a difference.

Association board members began to talk and collaborate in early 2013, when Kathryn Rice offered economic development workshops to residents. Elsewhere in the county, Kevin Chapman was trying to clean and maintain Wesley Chapel Road through an organization he started, the Wesley Chapel Curb Appeal Task Force. Individuals came together and in June 2013, the South DeKalb association was borne. A structure was developed, priorities determined, bylaws created and board spots, composed entirely of residents, filled.

In January, committees formed for five priorities: education, code compliance, safety, economic development and housing. Within three months, each committee developed a vision, project and metrics and had them approved by the larger community.The results have been remarkable.

The housing committee has collected data that reveals an unexplainable disparity in housing values and maintenance in South DeKalb, leading the association to collect evidence for possible legal action. The code compliance committee has held clean-ups and passed out educational flyers on the fourth Saturday for six consecutive months as part of its year-long campaign. As a result, the committee has partnered with local government and multiple organizations and been featured on television and radio and in newspapers.

The safety committee held a successful public forum with representatives from the sheriff, police and prosecutor’s office to explain how to improve safety in South DeKalb. The education committee is about to release a groundbreaking parent and student survey, which will be used to assess how both groups perceive their educational experience in South DeKalb. And the economic development committee has brought in expert speakers and hosted a visit to Georgia Power. A public meeting will be held Aug. 31 to finalize a South DeKalb Bill of Standards for business development.

The residents of South DeKalb are pleased. The South DeKalb Improvement Association represents about 3,130 residents; attendance at meetings averages about 60 to 70 people. The chair, David George, leads a committed board that includes Ken Taylor, Peggy Hobdy, Kathryn Rice, Kevin Chapman, Robert Douglas, Wayne Early and Gina Mangham. Work thus far has been done without much resources or support.

Separate from the association, I have taken on the issue of cityhood. I’ve studied and written about municipal incorporation/cityhood for several years until it hit my doorstep. Now, I help lead the effort for a city of South DeKalb. Thus far, in two meetings, audiences have unanimously agreed something needs to be done. Time will help clarify the final destination, but it is clear that change is afoot in South DeKalb.

Kathryn Rice is founder of the South DeKalb Improvement Association.

New ways to deal with crime

By John H. Eaves

Over the last several years, I have worked with stakeholders in the criminal justice system as part of my Smart Justice Advisory Council. It seeks sensible and creative sentencing solutions and deals with the root causes of crime that infringes upon lives. I’ve talked to law enforcement personnel, judges, our district attorney and local and state lawmakers.

More importantly, though, I’ve talked to Kate Boccia of Alpharetta, who recently shared her story in the AJC’s Personal Journeys’ feature. She has learned more about the criminal justice system than she ever anticipated. Her son, who struggled with a heroin addiction, is in prison charged with armed robbery. Boccia took her personal turmoil and turned it into action, fighting to get young people access to addiction treatment and the courts to rethink their handling of drug-related issues.

Boccia’s story is replicated throughout Fulton County and metro Atlanta as the experience of many parents. Drug use and abuse are responsible for much of the violent and property crime we deal with every day.Since 1984, total index crimes (which includes violent and property offenses) have increased 39 percent; total violent crime is up 25 percent. Not coincidentally, that is the period when street drugs, such as crack cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, became much more prevalent. We also battle recidivism — young offenders who commit multiple and more serious offenses and fill our jails. That criminal culture makes it difficult for businesses to thrive and leaves residents on edge. The situation may sound hopeless. It isn’t.

I have listened to concerns of urban, rural and suburban residents in this county who share the same worries. They want safe neighborhoods, and incarceration is no longer an effective deterrent to criminal activity.

What’s needed are different approaches, such as accountability courts, which treat substance abuse and other social problems of first-time offenders to make them less likely to return to our jails. They include opportunities for first-time offenders to function in society outside of a cell and get their lives together. There are lots of interesting and innovative approaches out there. That is where you come in.

Next Thursday, I will host one of my Crime and Safety Summits from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the auditorium of Riverwood International Charter School, Sandy Springs. It will feature law enforcement and criminal justice professionals, but I also want to hear from those who have been impacted by addiction, suicide and crime. The hope is that we can put recommendations into practice to make neighborhoods safer.

With your help, we can make this happen.

John H. Eaves is chairman of the Fulton County Commission.

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