How do you revitalize a dying downtown? Maybe it's the same way you save a dying marriage — one day at a time.
Okay, so maybe Martin Luther didn't really say, "If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today." Still, let me tell about a couple of amazing friends who are living this way right now.
John and Ashley Marsh's life as a married couple was a mess, and I'm probably understating that. John was doing drugs and was a million and a half dollars in debt. They were also overdrawn by ninety-nine thousand dollars and headed for an ugly divorce.
Then one day John headed to the attic, intending to hang himself as the best way out. Instead he met Jesus, who told him not to kill himself but instead to die to himself.
John came downstairs and told Ash he got saved. She said he was lying. But he wasn't, and months later she too found new life in Jesus Christ. They began to see that God loves broken people.
John and Ash's marriage slowly came back from the dead, and they wanted to tell others about it. Even more than that, John and Ash wanted to demonstrate the redemption they had experienced. Using their gifts and their experience, they decided to do it in Opelika, Alabama, a dying town where they lived.
Opelika, near the better-known college town of Auburn, featured a crumbling downtown, a surging crime rate, and a dearth of functioning businesses—until, that is, John and Ash Marsh rolled up their sleeves, seeking to bring beauty out of the brokenness and "make [their] amazing God visible."
John says, "We see the world through a redemptive vision that has empowered us to make an impact." So far, as God's stewards, they've patiently reclaimed 10 square blocks, with 185-plus houses and buildings. In a sense, Jesus has come to Opelika.
"We've dedicated a good portion of the last 20 years to redeeming this small patch of ground," Marsh tells Yellow Hammer News. "We believe there is something powerful about redeeming cities. So we've renovated all these downtown buildings and residential houses in an effort to make a difference."
And what a difference the Marsh Collective, their conglomerate of business ventures dedicated to resurrecting the city, has made. Where once was decay you'll now find restaurants, businesses, lofts for new residents, a couple of breweries, and most especially, hope. "We believe," Ash says, "that hyper focus in any area can change it." And indeed it has! What was once a blighted area has become a destination.
John and Ash have a fifty-year vision for Opelika. More than that, they are involved in similar renovations in other small towns. John calls what they do "redemptification," which he defines as "the creative work of redeeming a place to its intend[ed] beauty or glory."
John is modest about the Marsh Collective's achievements, noting that this kind of success requires patience, properly aligned vision and values, and productive capital. It's a lot like planting an apple tree. John says that the Lord can use anyone to help transform a community, even self-described "idiots" like him, adding, "God doesn't waste time. He's always taking what you're doing and weaving it into where you're going."
So how about us? How might Jesus take what we're doing and weave it into where we're going? In what ways has He prepared us to do the holy and hopeful work of redemptification in our families, towns, neighborhoods, institutions, or vocations wherever we are?
If this sort of thinking, and John and Ashley's story has sparked your redemptification imagination, you'll want to be part of the Wilberforce Weekend in Washington, D.C., this May. You'll have a chance to meet my friends John and Ashley Marsh, as well as some other amazing apple-tree planters like Joni Eareckson Tada, Jimmy Lin, Fr. Robert Sirico, and Andrew Peterson.
So come to WilberforceWeekend.org for the details—and get ready to change the world, or at least your little patch of it.