An old school bus circles through Vine City on a recent winter morning, stopping at abandoned gas stations and cracked-pavement parking lots to collect several dozen men and a few women.
All are dressed for long exposure to the bitterly cold weather, some in greasy down jackets and Army surplus overcoats, a few wrapped in blankets. But, while the sky spits freezing drizzle, their attitudes are sunny.
“You have a good weekend?” sings out driver, Cedric Brown.
“Oh yeah,” answers one of his charges.
“I know it was beautiful, ‘cause you’re still here,” Brown adds.
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“That’s true,” answers another. “There’s some that didn’t make it.”
Brown pilots the bus down Joseph E. Boone Boulevard, past a long palisade of black iron fencing, then into a gate, parking between two low warehouses on eight acres of land. A line of ragged figures is walking toward the same destination.
Inside one of the warehouses is a warm dining room where hot soup is bubbling on the stove and fried chicken is stacked on platters. There are servers waiting to bring food to the table. It is a respite from a harsh world outside.
This feeding program is one aspect of City of Refuge, an Atlanta non-profit operated by The Mission Church.
For several years, this group of maybe 200 parishioners, led by Pastor Bruce Deel, has worked under the radar, building an organization that serves 19,000 meals a month and offers medical and mental health services, day care, transitional housing and job training facilities.
But the City of Refuge is gaining attention from donors, churches and other homeless advocates. The city of Atlanta contributed funds for construction of transitional housing for homeless women within the warehouse complex. Numerous Atlanta churches, including such old-money bastions as the Cathedral of St. Philip and the Church of the Apostles, have offered time and cash.
City of Refuge already has drawn up plans for the addition of a 16,000 square-foot medical facility to be housed inside one of the cavernous buildings, with pro-bono design work from a quartet of top-drawer architects.
And this month images from the City of Refuge are on display at a unique exhibition of documentary photographs created by a class of Emory University students.
“They do everything with excellence,” said Emory physician Charles Moore, who spearheaded the creation of a clinic at the complex.
Deel, a pastor with the Church of God, can be credited with instilling that standard, said clients and associates.
“He has gained respect of the neighbors in that entire community,” said real estate developer David Mimms, who helped fund a commercial-grade kitchen at the center that serves hundreds of meals a day.
Deel has done this by putting himself in the middle of the worst of situations, moving his family and himself into blighted neighborhoods and trusting in his instincts, and in grace, to keep himself alive.
That doesn’t mean he won’t grab a baseball bat and chase an occasional burglar down the street, if necessary. It helps that he’s built like a linebacker, trains for half marathons and is fearless.
Deel, white-haired at 49, grew up near Pulaski, Va., the son of a Church of God pastor who worked regularly at missions overseas. The son came to Atlanta in 1992 to serve as associate pastor at a Doraville church before accepting a six-month assignment at the Midtown Mission Church of God.
He was supposed to shut the ailing church down and sell the property. To the contrary, he expanded the church and moved with his wife and five daughters, newborn to 11 years old, into the church building, leaving an idyllic home in Stone Mountain behind. Why? Living elsewhere “loses something in translation,” he said. “When I go home and tell the story, it’s not the same as when they’re here.”
So instead of pulling her children to a neighborhood school in a little red wagon, Rhonda Deel heard junkies and prostitutes trying to bash her windows in at 4 in the morning.
“When we moved in, oh my gracious, I learned how to cry in the shower so nobody would know,” she said.
“We had 34 break-ins,” said Bruce Deel. “Three vehicles were stolen; I had threats on my life; threats on my family. I went to court with guys that tried to kill us.”
Yet both say they were led to the church by the spirit and wouldn’t have missed that experience for the world. While working in Midtown, Deel made mission trips with his congregation to neighborhoods around Bankhead, English Avenue, Washington Park and Hunter Hill to bring sack lunches and free clothes to residents.
In 2003, while looking for a facility in the Bankhead area to better serve that neighborhood, he inquired about renting one of two warehouses at 1300 Joseph E. Boone Blvd., on the market for $1.6 million. He told the owner, commercial developer Malon Mimms, the kind of mission he planned to build. Mimms gave him the property.
“Of all the things I’ve done in my life, I’m proudest of this,” said the developer.
The two warehouses enclose a combined 210,000 square feet, and the City of Refuge has improved about half that space, building offices, a gym, a clinic, and residential units within the warehouse walls. With a total of $2.2 million from the Atlanta Development Authority, the church built the 132-bed Eden Village 1, transitional housing for homeless women and their children, and the 100-bed Eden Village 2 for single women without children.
After being processed through the Gateway Center downtown, the women of Eden go through an intensive 120-day process, with drug screening, mental health counseling and the goal of finding permanent housing elsewhere. They have an 86 percent success rate, said staff member Tony Johns.
The mission operates on a $2 million budget, with a staff of 28 and hundreds of volunteers.
“They combine their compassion and their calling with pragmatic expectations,” said Debi Starnes, who advises the mayor on homelessness issues. “They don’t coddle people; they don’t let people settle. They have expectations that, with help, people can get their lives back on track.”
For safety reasons, the City of Refuge does not provide housing for homeless men, said Johns. But both men and women can get assistance at the clinic and the resource center and job training in the culinary arts at the commercial kitchen.
City of Refuge offers a way out of the ruins. One-time cocaine trafficker Gregory Washington feels good about being part of its mission because he had a hand in some of that ruin.
“They put me back in the same community I helped destroy once, but they gave me something positive to do,” said Washington of Deel’s ministry, which gave him work as a manager and a driver.
On parole after serving 40 months of a 10-year sentence, Washington got his first real job in years as manager of Compassion Atlanta, a Refuge division that handles donated food and clothing, redistributing them to some 40 different churches and groups that are part of the organization’s network.
Washington recently walked through an unheated section of the warehouse where towels, socks and hygiene kits were stockpiled in 10-foot stacks, as volunteers loaded and unloaded pallets. A roaring portable heater battled the frigid warehouse air.
The Mission Church is a congregation composed of a mixture of the homeless (many of whom are African-American) and staff and volunteers (many of whom are white).
Some of his friends shy away from a church led by a white preacher, said Washington, 39, who is black.
“I see people come down here and say, ‘Man, it’s an all-white ministry,’ and I say ‘Man, you are blind. If you’re worried about that, man, you got a lot to learn.’”