(Photo: Flickr/Ron Reiring)
Pastor Leonce Crump chose over three years ago to launch Renovation Church in Atlanta on the weekend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Why? Because the dream of racial equality and brotherhood King spoke about 50 years prior had yet to be fully realized, even in a city that was a bedrock of the civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement in Atlanta started long before King linked arms with other locals to march through town demand justice. Organized acts of resistance by African Americans against segregation, economic inequity, and racial violence in Atlanta go back to the late 19th century.
But it is King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech that reminds Americans every year that there is still work to be done in society, and even in our churches, when it comes to celebrating diversity and living in true brotherhood.
"We stressed from the very beginning that we're going to be the outworking of that grand dream that Dr. King had for all people, all God's children. To live in community together, to understand one another, to do life together, to move beyond 'equality' into actual relationship and natural rhythms," explained Pastor Crump.
"That's what our church has been founded on, especially in light of the civil rights movement in Atlanta. Since then, God has been kind enough to let us see that dream come to fruition."
Renovation Church, originally founded by Crump in his home with just three people, today is home to about 800 members, who are mostly young and ethnically diverse. The community currently gathers for worship on Sundays at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in downtown Atlanta. Crump, an African American, is 33 years old, married and the father of two girls.
"On any given weekend, we're about 55 percent Anglo, about 35-40 percent African American and 10-15 percent everything else, that is mixed-race, Filipino, Chinese, Indian, Hispanic, really all across the board. So we really do have a beautiful representation of God's creative genius in our congregation," said Crump.
Crump, a Louisiana native and former lukewarm Catholic, shared that although God "radically invaded my life right before I turned 16" and eventually impressed upon him a call to enter the ministry, he spent the next few years focusing on wrestling (he is an Oklahoma Sooner All-American), a brief NFL career (with the New Orleans Saints) and "trying out law school" (he holds a Master's in criminal justice).
When God's call to the ministry became more "persistent," and "His draw more loud and pervasive in every single aspect of my life," Crump finally relented. He served as a youth pastor in three churches before feeling drawn in 2006 to Atlanta, where he and his wife moved two years later.
He felt compelled to see Dr. King's dreams realized because the condition of the city where the civil rights giant was born, he soon learned, aches for it.
The Atlanta metropolitan area, comprised of 28 counties, is home to more than half of Georgia's population of 9.9 million. Metro Atlanta is about 55 percent white, 32 percent black, 10 percent Hispanic/Latino and about 4 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, according to 2010 figures.
While metro Atlanta is a leading commercial and financial hub, its low-income residents, who are predominantly black, have some of the toughest challenges when it comes to upward mobility, according to a recent study.
Many of the area's poorer residents live in neighborhoods that are far from those of their more affluent and predominantly white fellow Atlantans, and far from potential employers. The city's public transportation system, whose customers reportedly are about 74 percent black, has proven inadequate in helping to alleviate economic disparities. Furthermore, discussions on attempts to expand Atlanta's public transportation system have been, for decades, overshadowed by racial tensions.
After the move from Tennessee to Atlanta, Crump experienced three failed planting attempts, and spent three years "detoxing" from previous church experiences while becoming intimate with the city he felt drawn to serve.
"You can't learn about the racial and ethnic tensions and economic tensions that exist in Atlanta via demographic studies," said Crump. "Or how upper middle class blacks and upper middle class whites view lower income African Americans. You can't learn about the tensions that exist around how the city of Buckhead was actually started. So, in that three-year period, between 2008 and 2011, I got to see Atlanta through the eyes of a native Atlantan. It really has affected almost every decision I've ever made in regard to the church."
A big part of how Renovation works is to empower its people, not just spiritually, but in practical ways to address "every issue in their neighborhood" through the small groups, or missional communities they lead out of their homes. "The church, the staff, the elders are really there to support their ministry efforts. To finance them, to resource them, to train them. They are frontlines for social justice issues, mercy issues, anything that we do," said Crump.
The pastor explained that it is not simply a desire to realize MLK's dream that defines Renovation's mission, but rather the reality that to faithfully serve Atlanta means addressing its brokenness — the " race, economic, educational and inter-personal relationships between people who find themselves in different socioeconomic strata."
"If we're gonna be a faithful church in the city of Atlanta, and faithful to that vision, then a major component to that has to be breaking down those barriers because they are key to so many of the issues that we see in the city, from homelessness to trafficking to lack of education aptitude..." he added.
While the broad vision is "to make Atlanta a great city through a holistic Gospel movement, making beautiful what is broken," Renovation Church's mission remains "to make and multiply diverse communities of disciples."
"Those two things go hand-in-hand to really from the bull's eye for what we want to do and what we want to be about as a church. It takes empowering people to be able to do that, because this can't be a one-man show to see such a grand vision actually become a reality. People have to own it, they have to run with it, they have to see it as their own for this to even begin to be a reality."
Asked to describe his city for those who have never visited Georgia's capital and most populous area, or have never seen what he has seen as a native, Crump said it is "a beautiful and broken mess of both racial and economic inequality and injustice."
"It's a city that I love, but with that love comes a desperate desire for it to be more, to see it be what it could be, to see the reality of Dr. King's beloved community come to fruition," he added.