Friends share music on Paul and Jessica Vaughan’s back porch earlier this year in Lilburn. The couple said they hope to use the old Garner Farm to help others and foster community. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

This Life: Lilburn family’s dream to foster community hits roadblock

For years, Jessica Vaughan imagined life with her husband and three children in an urban area populated with diverse people and ages and ideas.

When her mother-in-law passed and the couple received a modest inheritance, that place seemed within reach.

But they wanted to use the money for good, perhaps extend some goodwill to the community even.

While still contemplating their next move, a for sale sign went up on the old Garner Farm a mile down the road from the Vaughans’ Hanarry West subdivision in Lilburn.

If they couldn’t be in an urban setting, Jessica told her husband, Paul, she loved old houses, too.

That captured his attention, and the family was off to see the Garner place. They’d barely put the car in park, when their three young’uns jumped out and headed toward the chickens.

They and Paul immediately fell in love with the place. Jessica not so much.

Back home, the Vaughans had a pretty heated discussion about what to do next.

Being the good man that he is, Paul Vaughan conceded to his wife. If you’re not feeling it, he told her, that’s fine. I respect your opinion.

A week or two later, Jessica had a change of heart and called the owner to ask if she could come over and pray, hoping she might gain a vision about how it could work, if God could use her to bless her community there.

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She remembered recent teachings at her church about making the effort to extend hospitality to others, particularly refugees new to the community, to move from fear to friendship and from debate to dialogue.

The lessons, offered in the aftermath of 9/11, had resonated with both Paul and Jessica, especially after a trip to ground zero and participation in conferences and dinners with imams from local mosques and congregations.

“We learned that Muslims are just normal people,” Jessica Vaughan said.

She learned something else, too, something she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

As she walked around the Garner Farm that day, she felt God saying, You don’t have to have this land if you don’t want it. 

She was walking back to the car thinking she’d get her little place in the city, when she heard God speak again: What if I’m giving it not to you but through you?

“I saw in my head me holding the land out for anyone who wanted it,” she recalled.

She knew in that instant that she’d been chosen because she wouldn’t hoard it. No, Jessica Vaughan would use the farm to build community so that her children and ours would not grow up fearing people who are different from them.

Paul and Jessica Vaughan of Lilburn purchased the old Garner Farm in December. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In December, the Vaughans closed on the property. Neither of them had even grown a tomato. Paul is an aerospace engineer, and Jessica, a former Gwinnett County teacher, works for a curriculum company. What would they do with a garden full of weeds taller than both of them?

Just as God spoke — the weed is taller than you but I’m taller than the weed — Jessica’s phone rang. A woman from the Refuge Coffee Co. in Clarkston was looking for a job on behalf of a Rohingyan who’d fled Myanmar to escape the mass atrocities happening there.

If you hear of anything, let me know, the woman told her.

What is his skill set? Jessica asked.

Abu Talib had owned and managed a community garden and, the next week, he arrived to find the Vaughans and other “Kingdom-minded” folk there praying the land would become a place for peace and reconciliation.

Jessica wanted to lead a tour around the place but realized she was ill-equipped to share anything about the farm. Talib, the gardener and lone refugee in the group, knew plenty.

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He’s been working in the garden ever since.

With the help of friends, Talib planted crops of lettuce, carrots, turnips, onions and celery.

Gardener Abu Talib, a Rohingyan refugee from Myanmar, teaches Scarlett Vaughan and her friend how to plant lettuce seeds in the Vaughans’ Lilburn farm. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Back in February, another friend of the Vaughans telephoned. They wanted to host a party honoring refugees from the nonprofit Peace of Thread at the farm.

Jessica said yes and out of respect for her neighbors announced her intentions in a flyer. Over 100 people — Christians, Muslims, atheists, refugees, American citizens, immigrants — showed up.

That didn’t sit well with one of the neighbors, a fellow Christian who fought in the Iraq War.

The Vaughans believe the man is responsible for 10 complaints lodged against them. Trees leaning over the side of the road. A strange car in their driveway. A tree trunk that had not been ground down low enough.

Each time, the Vaughans promptly responded. They’d planned a Sept. 29 fundraiser for Peace of Thread, but the county balked.

“Everyone gives me a different story,” Jessica said. “Some say yes, you need a permit. Some say no.”

Heather Sawyer, a spokeswoman for the county, said the Vaughans’ home would have to be rezoned with a special use permit before they could hold a fundraising event on the farm.

“Ms. Vaughan is welcome to meet with Gwinnett County Planning and Development staff to learn more about the rezoning process and what might be possible for her property,” Sawyer said in an email response to questions.

The Vaughans believe the county is overstepping its authority, reaching too far into their private affairs and thus preventing them from living a normal, healthy, communal life with their neighbors, and it’s hard to argue with that.

“Even my small group Bible study is now considered an illegal special event until we are rezoned,” Jessica Vaughan said.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Oh, my. I get flustered just thinking about that, but the Vaughans aren’t about to forfeit the vision they believe God gave them for Garner Farm.

“Every challenge is an opportunity to cultivate community,” Jessica said.

It’s not surprising then that instead of responding in like manner to the neighbor who complained about the first gathering that the Vaughans decided to bake cookies for everyone on the man’s street and asked their friends to do the same.

“We had a kitchen full of people baking cookies for this man. Maybe the farm isn’t just for refugees from other countries. Maybe it’s for him. Maybe it’s for anyone not experiencing the peace God has for all of us.”

Wouldn’t that be just like God? Besides who knows better than him that all of us are in need of healing.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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