Faces of Blight: These ministers are giving back to the community in their church’s back yard
More from the series
Building Blocks from Blight
The Telegraph is investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at email@example.com or call her at (478) 744-4306.
Jimmy Asbell has watched Pleasant Hill transform from his vantage point at the corner of Vineville and Forest avenues for the past half century. When the senior minister at Vineville United Methodist Church first attended services at the church as a child, most of the homes in Pleasant Hill were occupied. Now, as he drives through on his way to work, Asbell passes rows of boarded up houses and vacant lots.
The church was built before the neighborhood was established, and most of Asbell’s congregants and staff don’t live in Pleasant Hill. For some, it’s just a neighborhood they drive through on their way to services each Sunday. But Asbell and Associate Minister Grace Guyton are determined to strengthen relations between the church and its neighbors.
They’ve launched a collaborative that brings together local faith leaders, school teachers, neighborhood preservationists and philanthropists to address issues facing the community. Vineville United Methodist Church also sends tutors to nearby L.H. Williams Elementary School each week, stuffs backpacks full of food for students to bring home on the weekends, renovates houses with Macon Area Habitat for Humanity and partners with neighborhood organizations like Campus Clubs and the Pleasant Hill Community Garden. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Asbell: “We have been real careful, in recent years, to look for who is doing things well and join them, without worrying about who has control or who gets the credit. So, we have lots of partnerships in the neighborhood with other churches and other organizations.
“We are not, mostly, a neighborhood church any longer. It was begun that way. And I think, you know, probably in its history, we’ve had fits and starts at different times of maybe doing things that we thought was a good idea in the past and we didn’t ask first. We just did something. And it may have been less successful for that lack of sensitivity. But we have some folks here who have decades-long relationships with families. So, it’s not about doing something and disappearing. But they have been to school, they have followed through college, they have been to the hospital to visit, they have taken people into their homes, they have gone to visit in prison. And so, those relationships that have spanned not just a once and done event have proven to build trust and a history of trust. Our relationship with the school being over 35 years now has built trust that people realize that we’re here. We’re not going anywhere. We’ve chosen not to leave this neighborhood and move the church. And that we feel a connection to this neighborhood.
“This was my church growing up, so I have come to this particular corner since I was five years old. So, it has changed from being, in my childhood, largely occupied. There were not the empty houses. The blight was not the issue it is now, in terms of empty spaces, abandoned properties were not — it was fully occupied in the 70s. It has changed. I think most drastically, maybe from the 90s, late 80s, into 2000, that 15-year span may have been the hardest.
“They take away from the visual attractiveness of the neighborhood. They become home for crime. As they deteriorate in value, they take down the values of houses around them. I think there’s – over time, the same way in our homes, we get to the point that we get frustrated with the way things look, and we want to make changes. I think when things are not the way we would like them to be, that that takes its toll on just our attitude towards the community. We begin to think that everything is run down. I think it begins to color the way we see the world.”
Tutoring at L.H. Williams Elementary School once a week for the past three years has helped Guyton see Pleasant Hill as more than just a neighborhood she passes through on her way to work. She’s built relationships with the students, and they’ve helped her to understand what it’s like to grow up in the neighborhood around the corner from the church.
Guyton: “I think it’s easy sometimes, you know, if you drive through Pleasant Hill and you don’t have any connection to it, (to) make snap judgments about the people that live there. But, you know, if you take the time to get to know some of the residents of the community, you realize, you know, some of the struggles and issues that are going on, and it puts a human face to things we hear about a lot.
“Vineville is a community, but we’re not called to just sit inside the walls of these buildings, either. You know, the gospel’s pretty clear about reaching out and inviting people in, and about us going out and doing things for others.
“It’s encouraging to see, ‘cause, just on my drive in, I mean, I pass now — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 — at least seven or eight homes that have either been moved or renovated. And, you know, just to see the difference that that has made and the new life that has come from that, and there’s a community garden, now, that I pass every day that was put in a few years ago. You know, I just like to see the neighborhood continue to improve.
Asbell: “I would love to see a strengthened quality of life and community that is economically sustainable so that the bones and structure of the community are there to provide for a rich life for the residents, for it to be a place that, again, that people are — feel proud of and a place that people want to be in and from.”
This story is part of a series in The Telegraph investigating blight in Bibb County and its impact on the community. Over the next few months, Telegraph reporter Samantha Max will profile local residents affected by blight in their own communities. If you’d like to be interviewed, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (478) 744-4306.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.