Practicing a more human way to love God and neighbor
We believe we didn’t know what it meant to be human until God became human in Jesus Christ. So, our primary hope and reason for our life together is that we might be transformed more into Jesus. We look forward to the time when our neighborhood is also transformed into the world he intended. In short, we care about people and place. We want to love God and our neighbors well while working together to build a better neighborhood.
Join me. I’m going to be your tour guide through Old North Abbey. It’s 2016. Let’s start at the end of Thompson Place where some guerilla gardening has clearly taken place. It’s technically illegal so we keep it hush hush, but between you and me, I’ve heard Larry, Donna, Ty, Lois, Jeff, Aaron and Brenna planted these dogwoods, and they have plans to line the streets with hanging baskets.
Around the corner about a block away you’ll see a house on the corner. Ryan and Angela Garner live there with David & Whitney Garner. They bought the house together with the church, and we all own it as a part of a housing cooperative we set up. Every morning and evening, you will see a handful of people from the church and the neighborhood heading into the house to pray the morning and evening office.
Last week they hosted Austin Church’s parents visiting from Nashville, who said they felt like they were in a bed and breakfast. They had a room all to themselves and breakfast was ready when they woke up. This summer, our Bishop, Foley Beach, will be in town, and he will stay there while he’s visiting the churches in the area. A month from now, a single mom is going to live there with her 15-year-old son. They had trouble making rent, but we established a relationship with them because of Angela’s involvement as a counselor with Fulton High School. We’ve offered them a place to stay for three months to get back on their feet. Hopefully, her son won’t have to worry about transferring schools for the third time in three years.
Rose Mortuary’s land, caddy corner to the house, has been converted into a large garden. Aaron and Brenna Wright have agreed to grow roses around the perimeter of the garden for Rose Mortuary to give to families in mourning in exchange for cultivating the land for free. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Inman’s come over and join the Wright’s to take the produce to the downtown farmer’s market. Other members of the church often join them.
Whatever food we don’t sell at the Farmer’s Market we use to supplement our Food-4-All meal cooperative. Having been at it for four years now, we are now up to five groups of families, and the groups are comprised of people both in and outside the church. Because of Food-4-All, we are in our neighbors’ homes five nights a week. We’ve had old Christians, who’d become disenchanted with church come back and join our congregation. We’ve even had some people become Christians for the first time as a result of the conversations.
In the summer, students from Johnson University’s urban ministry program live in the house as a part of a summer internship program. They work the garden and go through a curriculum taught by members of our church and are overseen by Ryan. As a part of their internship they preach once or twice during worship. At the end of the summer, an advisory committee made up of Old North Abbey’s members, prays over each student and gives them insight into what we see God might be calling them to do.
On Wednesday nights, the students invite people from the community in for a conversation about faith and philosophy. Our long term hope is that this house becomes a place hospitable to this kind of conversation all the time. We’d love for people to stay for extended periods to work in the house and garden and wrestle with questions of faith.
Heading toward downtown we’ll walk through the newly built courtyard at Guy B. Love Towers. The church designated that as part of its budget last year, and now the residents have a beautiful place to sit outside under arbors covered in lilac and shaded by dogwoods. We continue to play bingo with the residents once every other month or so, and soon we plan to paint a mural together to decorate their dining hall.
As we make our way down Broadway, we’ll stop into Common Cup, the coffee shop we opened with Josh Beard, in the house where the Food Co-op used to be. This neighborhood was begging for a good coffee shop. It was voted Metro Pulse’s Best New Business last year. We have local artists featured each month, and it’s hard to find a seat at the singer/songwriter nights. We’re actually in the process of producing a live compilation album featuring the musicians that have played here for the last two years.
Go across the way to Central St., where Austin Church and Deborah Broome have started a small business incubator. Interns enroll in a 9-month program during which they are given a work space and taught to write a business plan. Their participation in the program qualifies them to apply for a grant, which if awarded, serves as start-up capital for their new business. Interns also work with Ryan Bolton and Clint Darrah, who run a T-shirt shop in the front of the space. In a partnership with Emerald Youth Foundation, Ryan and Clint also hire Fulton students who want to learn business and design skills.
At the intersection of Broadway and Central, we found an old building covered in fake cedar shake siding. Aaron has converted this old office building into a pizza pub. On the street level, you can get the best homemade pesto-based pizza in Knoxville. All his ingredients are grown literally up the road. If they didn’t come from the garden on Rose Mortuary’s land, they came from the gardens Gregg Baird installed on blighted properties around the neighborhood. To date, Gregg has restored 10 blighted properties. Properties that once deteriorated due to crime, which resulted from years of neglect, now overflow with life. Now, not only does buying a pizza from Aaron support local agriculture, it helps to restore neighborhoods.
On the second story, is a cozy pub. There’s only five tables. Three of them are next to large windows that overlook Broadway. Candles illumine the fireplace. It’s definitely the best place to have a good conversation. You don’t have to contend with loud music or large crowds. It also has the best beer selection in town. Beers from all over the world are offered, and this year, due to the efforts of our brewer, Marshall Hauser, we just added a great domestic. For the first time, you can drink a beer brewed from hops grown right in this neighborhood. Old North Abbey Ale is guaranteed to be a strong contender at this year’s Brewer’s Jam.
On Tuesday nights, if you wander into the pub, you’ll bump into Kenny Woodhull. Finally, in partnership with two other area churches, we were able to raise enough money to hire him as our Missiologist in Residence. Essentially, Kenny has turned this part of town into a virtual college campus. Don’t judge these buildings by their cover. Buildings that function as coffee shops and pubs are actually classrooms. Students enrolled in Kenny’s program are getting college and masters-level credit for courses in contextual theology.
Finally, if you go around the corner to 15 Emory Place, you’ll see one of the best special event venues in Knoxville. On Sunday mornings, the members of Old North Abbey meet for worship. They’ve also used the space as a catalyst to generate some energy in the area. They’ve thrown block parties and invited everyone from those who have offices there, to neighbors in 4th & Gill, Old North Knoxville, St. John’s Lutheran and Minvilla Manor. Emory Place has become a vital gathering place for Knoxville. Children’s Theatre of Knoxville rehearses here. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, Natalie Reagan, Caroline King, Anna Laura Reeve and Rose Bolton host an after school arts academy. Students between the ages of 10 & 18 learn how to write, draw, act and dance. Their artwork is a regular on the walls of 15 Emory Place. This space has been home to some of the most compelling art installations in Knoxville as well as some of the most brilliant singer/songwriters in the Southeast. If you’re thinking about having an event there, get your name on the list now. They’re booked 7 nights a week.
That is what I see. Perhaps the particulars will vary, but one thing that remains is the need for Christians to decide if they are willing to invest in a place in such a way that we declare to the world that death no longer reigns. We need people who will build a world that is a glimpse of the future, when God will make all things new. We need people with the kind of imagination, creativity, and, most of all, hope necessary to bear this kind of witness. We have a call to build, and we look forward to working with you to build this city.