I’m CSPC elder Jim McKinney, and this is how I’m living deeply.
Remember when six students were shot in eight months around Austin East High School in early 2021? I’ve been connected with inner city ministry work for over 30 years, and these fatal shootings made me so sad. What can you do? Several of us -two or three other folks and me- started going down to Austin East on Saturday mornings and prayer walking the school. We would also pick up trash, which made us feel surprisingly connected. Every piece of trash, after all, had touched one of those kids somewhere. They had a graduation in that time frame, and I’ve got hanging in my car right now a tassel one of the kids dropped. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I read an interview in the paper with a guy named Reuben Mitchell. Reuben had a relationship with one of the victims and had been trying to help him. Through something called the Black House, Reuben was trying to pull these kids off the street, give them ways to learn construction skills, earn some money, that sort of thing. I read the interview and thought, ‘This guy is actually doing something and sounds like a believer.’ One Saturday after our prayer walk, I thought, ‘You know, Reuben said the Black House was on the corner of Chestnut and Martin Luther King. So I’ll drive out that way.’ I assumed I would find a house with a sign on it: the Black House. Not exactly. As I make it to the corner and get out of my car, I look up, and there’s this house painted totally black. Okay, that must be it. A guy walks out and I tell him, ‘I’m looking for Reuben.’ ‘Yeah, here’s his card.’ So I’ve got this card. There’s nobody home at the house. I call Reuben’s number, leave a message, and it’s not 10 minutes before Reuben calls me back. We start talking, and it’s clear three minutes into the conversation we’re on the same page. So we agreed to meet up. Reuben tells me this black house had been condemned and donated to him. He’s a contractor, and apparently the city trusted he would fix the place up. That’s what he was in the process of doing. So he says, ‘Yeah, come down. You can work with me, with the kids, or whoever’s there.’ So I started going down.
Chestnut and MLK is one of the worst crime corners in East Knoxville. A bunch of the shootings you hear about happen there. Drug houses and other hubs for criminal activity are nearby. One day, Reuben’s sitting in his house –the Black House- watching TV, hears a boom, and a bullet comes through the wall and hits his TV. But he says, ‘I’m not leaving. I’m fixing this house up so people see that you can live here.’ That’s inspiring to me. Reuben likes to reference the passage in Ezekiel about the valley of dry bones and say, ‘I want to look down MLK -it’s a valley of dry bones- and I want to see, over time, little by little, flesh put on these bones and this neighborhood changed.’ With that kind of vision, it’s easy to say, ‘Count me in.’ The only resource Reuben has is his own business –construction; fixing up houses- but he uses it. I don’t have anything I can do to help, really, other than be with him. But that’s sort of always been the case in my work with inner city ministry: you don’t overthink it and just follow in the path God has before you. My wife Jan and I started working with CSPC high school kids back in 1995. One of the first Bible studies I did was with a group of freshmen, and I’ve kept up with a few of them over the years. Two of them are now helping in this effort Reuben’s a part of: Daniel Odle and Barrett Wilson. (It’s neat to see how God weaves people from a different stage of life back into your story!) Chris Battle, a former pastor who’s now planting gardens to battle food insecurity in this area, is on board, too. We’re all asking: How do we shine a light that will actually change this neighborhood? Behind the convenience store at Chestnut and MLK, and adjacent to Reuben’s backyard, is a vacant lot. So we started talking to Chris: ‘Would that space be conducive to a community garden?’ He’s like, ‘Well, yeah.’ Then Daniel goes to the city to find out who owns the lot. He learns the city owns it but isn’t doing anything with it. So through Daniel, we start talking to the city: ‘Can we buy the lot?’ When they found out what we wanted to do with it, their response was, ‘Here, we’ll give it to you.’
We closed on the property this fall and got to work. To start, we built a fence out of donated pallets. Then we started building raised garden beds on top of this concrete slab. Neighbors are coming by and asking, ‘What are you all doing here?’ When we tell them, they say, ‘That’s really cool. Can I put a garden in there?’ And that’s the whole idea- to have plots available. We’ve built 30 raised beds- 30 plots where people can do that. If you have a garden, 10% of what you grow goes to a stand where people can come and buy it. This area is a food desert, meaning there’s a lack of access to healthy food. So the gardens are helping meet a need. Chris even runs a food delivery van- he’ll be taking extra food grown in the gardens and making sure it gets to people who otherwise can’t get to the grocery store. Also, the health department has a program where they give out refrigerators to install at community gardens like this. They’ve judged us worthy, so we just got one- it’s housed in this stainless steel case and anchored to the ground; extremely secure. The refrigerator is a community thing. Simple idea: if you have extra, put it in the fridge, but if you need anything, you’re welcome to it. No meats or anything like that, but the fridge is another way to find –or give- vegetables and produce. We got a couple other folks from CSPC involved to help put together a little LLC that formally owns the lot. But Chris and Reuben are primary owners and the ones running the LLC and leading the whole effort. (That’s important- Reuben and Chris are the ones on the ground, the ones with the relationships and the vision. It’s their thing. We’re there to help.) I’m 73- I helped build the flower beds, but I generally can’t do much manual labor. My posture has been, ‘Hey, you’re doing something I love. Can I just come be with you?’ Most of the time, I’m just holding stuff. And that’s enough. One day recently I had hand surgery and Reuben needed some help. So I went down, but I told him, ‘I’m one- handed. The doctor says I can’t pick up more than five pounds.’ His response was very touching to me: ‘It means more that you’re just here with me when I do it.’
This is just the beginning of what God’s up to at Chestnut and MLK, and when He’s up to something, things happen. Part of Reuben’s vision is to have an expanded vocational training program where folks can come and learn hands-on skills. I think of one young lady I met recently. Reuben taught her how to paint, then gave her the sprayers and everything he uses to paint houses. Now she’s gone out and started her own painting business. We’re praying for stories like that to be replicated. One of the primary issues for kids in this area is they see no way out of there and no way to ever make a living. Many think the only way they can make money is by selling drugs. And if you’re going to be selling drugs, you’re going to need a gun. Once you get a gun, then it’s a spiral down. The only way this is ever going to change is relationally, one person at a time. We’d also like to buy more property in the area to help bring the vision to life, and having the LLC in place helps with that. For instance, there’s a yellow house we were trying to buy next to the garden. The guy who owns it turned us down, but he’s a believer, and I feel like God could still be up to something there. I’ve since developed a relationship with this guy and shared our vision for the area. When we were working in the garden one Saturday this fall, I texted him an invite to come check it out: ‘We’re starting to do this garden. We’re serving up hot dogs and stuff. Why don’t you come by if you get a chance?’ I thought he’d never come, but it wasn’t 10 minutes before he showed up- and hung around for about 2 hours, talking to everybody and saying how much he loved what was happening! If we can get him to join us, that’s another house on the corner targeted for redemptive use, along with the Black House, and after that is a little church, then another half a block down is a popular soup kitchen ministry. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you start connecting these things together. In my mind’s eye, I can see that corner being taken back for the gospel- Rueben’s vision: the valley of dry bones coming back to life.
When you retire, everybody wants to know: ‘So what do you do now?’ I’ve got another friend who retired not too long ago. Recently I asked him, ‘Is everybody asking you what you do now?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ So I replied, ‘When they say that, what do you hear?’ ‘They’re asking whether or not I’m relevant anymore.’ And I know exactly what he’s talking about, because that is what people want to know: Are you still relevant? Do you do anything worthwhile anymore or just play golf or whatever? (I don’t have anything against golf, by the way, but I’m not any good at it.) And honestly, when you retire, that question does go through your mind: So what do I do now? For me, what didn’t help were all the well-intended materials about finishing strong and finishing well in the last part of your life. Don’t get me wrong: I DO want to finish well! But what that’s looked like for me has been going to the corner where I spend my quiet time and saying to God, ‘I’m willing to do whatever you want me to do. I want to finish well.’ And basically God has said to me, ‘I’ve got this. You don’t have to do anything. Just do what I give you each day- what’s in front of you.’ It’s really Ephesians 2:10 playing out: He’s created the good works for us to walk in. It’s easy at this stage of life to think, ‘Well, I’ve got to come up with some way to do something meaningful.’ But I’m learning that’s not the right approach. Instead, be still before Him and He’ll show you the good works. Then follow. I didn’t set out to change MLK and Chestnut. I didn’t have an agenda there. My heart ached for the kids down there, and I had no idea what to do with it. Then God showed me what He was already doing in that area. He already has His people in place, Reuben and Chris, doing the good work. How kind He is to let me in on it a little.