I remember the first time I met Michelle. She had recently moved to the historic South Atlanta neighborhood and was looking for a place to serve. We were introduced at a coffee shop run by a local community development corporation called Focused Community Strategies (FCS), and I suggested, as is REMERGE’s way, that she come to our community (at the time we were located where Downtown and Midtown Atlanta meet), get to know us, discover where she fit, and we’d go from there.
It didn’t take long for Michelle to find her place and we were off and running. Little did I know then how much she would influence me personally along with the organization that I lead.
At REMERGE we say that we are “experimenters with Reconciliation.” This leads us to constantly wrestle with two questions – 1. What does reconciliation look like here? and 2. Are we doing what we say that we’re doing? If you know Michelle, then you know that Michelle loves to get her hands dirty processing the grit of life. So she has reveled in these questions as we wrestled with our commitments, core practices, and the ways we thought we were creating spaces for reconciliation but weren’t. Not only did she press us all in the development of the community as a whole, she leaned into these questions as she began to give creative influence to the role she found within our community – loving women discarded and forgotten on the streets and in the world of trafficking.
What should come as no surprise is that Michelle excelled at this work. Committing herself to join lives with these women became transformative for her and the women she was in community with. But there was something nagging away in the background. It wasn’t the work or the women, it was those pesky questions. Michelle doesn’t live where our community was centered, she lives in South Atlanta. What makes this fact so important is that REMERGE takes seriously the “here” of the first question: What does reconciliation look like here? Reconciliation was happening where she worked, but how was she engaging with it where she lived?
One day Michelle came to me with an idea. She had been developing relationships with some youth in her neighborhood and thought that maybe it would be more faithful for her and with who we are as an organization if she stopped commuting to community and started a new work for REMERGE in South Atlanta where she lived. Hence the beginning of the South Atlanta Youth Group.
In the years that have followed we have worked hard to develop the kind of community building work with the youth of the neighborhood that fits with our holistic vision of reconciliation. We have experimented with different ways of gathering, practices that are essential, mindsets that guide our interactions and decisions, and the challenges of partnering with organizations and churches to create a youth community that honors and transcends institutional boundaries to serve the entire neighborhood.
But then those pesky questions began to rear their heads once more. As REMERGE consolidated its strategy and energy around a model of place-based, collaborative Community Building Studios beginning in the historic Sweet Auburn neighborhood, we began to wonder how far our commitment to radical collaboration might take us. Would it make sense missionally, strategically and relationally to entrust an extremely fruitful and successful ministry that we have spent years nurturing to another organization? If there was a partner organization missionally aligned and whose energy and resources are committed to this one neighborhood, shouldn’t we at least consider relinquishing responsibility and oversight to that partner? Certainly not to just any organization, but what about FCS, our long-time partner and friend? For years we have worked closely with FCS in the South Atlanta neighborhood. In fact, South Atlanta has been the focus community for FCS for the past 19 years where they have helped to bring significant positive change to the neighborhood including affordable housing, a local grocery, and Community Grounds – the coffee shop where I was first introduced to Michelle.
This has been no academic exercise for me or REMERGE; we are talking about the lives of children, an entire team, and a significant leader and dear friend. These questions have led us down a challenging and reflective path, testing our commitment to serve God and His mission, not our own kingdom or brand. So with much prayer and discussion we have come to believe that transitioning the youth group to FCS is a faithful response to our calling and mission.
Maintaining and acting on a commitment to your mission and values is difficult when it costs you something of great worth. Although we are very excited about this new stage in the development of the youth group, we are incredibly sad to see the youth group transition away. (A youth group that my children attend.) We are sad to not have Michelle be a part our team meetings and press us to process through the tough questions. We will miss the funny moments with her at our team celebrations and parties. I will miss building something meaningful together with such a great friend.
With Great Affection,
Andy Odle, Ph.D.