I’m former CSPC Director of Women’s Ministries Suzanne Stelling. Here’s more of how I’ve been living deeply the past seven years, since moving from the relative comfort of West Knoxville to Woodbine Avenue in East Knoxville. It’s an experience captured in my new book The Woodbine Chronicles: A Neighborhood Love Story.
Especially in our first two years, there was a lot of drugs, prostitution, and gunfire. There were still bloodstains from a shooting on the sidewalk nearby when we moved in. From my home, I can point to at least a couple spots where people have been shot in our time here. We probably heard gunfire two to four times a week. Sometimes it would be through our back alley, and sometimes it would be from a car out front on Woodbine Avenue. What we quickly learned was it wasn’t about us- it was about gangs or retribution or some dispute. I grew up with guns, so I knew how to respond- to count how many shots, to get down to the floor, to call 911, all those things. What I did to deal with the possibility of violence against me, especially if someone was just completely wigged out on drugs (which we saw sometimes), was to come back to this truth: ‘My body is God’s. I’m His daughter. I have fully given myself over to Him. I’m a steward of my body, but He is, too. If harm is part of my story with Him, I have to trust Him with that.’ (So far, it hasn’t been part of my story, and I’m so glad.) That’s a massive, remarkable change from how I grew up, which was to be very self-protective. My husband also had to get to the point where he could release me: ‘If something happens to us, I have to trust God with it. Even if it’s horrible.’ The bottom line is this is God’s body, and so if something happens, ultimately, He’s my Father and He’s responsible, in an over-arching way. I had to just settle that in my mind. We also began to be aware of other believers in our ‘hood who had been there, praying and bringing the light of God, for years. I loved running across the street and hearing my Black neighbors pray — it was like entering heaven itself, and demons were banished forever, A-men. That felt better to me and gave me courage.
One thing about an urban neighborhood is there’s a lot of turnover. With rental prices in Knoxville skyrocketing and the gentrification that’s come sweeping through my neighborhood, every single person who was receiving government voucher assistance is gone now. They could no longer afford to be here. It’s broken our hearts. You would first see the big dumpsters come out in front of the homes, then see the signs go up, and then came a lot of quick refurbishing. When new people move in, they usually buy the houses as opposed to renting. They’re young and generally white. They have great intentions toward the neighborhood – it’s just different. When we moved in, there were probably only four white families on our block. Now there are exactly four Black families left on our block. So does this defeat the purpose of our moving here? We’ve talked a lot about that, and we believe God still wants us on Woodbine Avenue. When we moved in, we committed to a decade here. That’s because all the people we talked to before moving to Woodbine recommended a decade to earn the respect and trust of those who live on your block. We’re in our seventh year, and I’m starting to understand that I don’t have a decade with people. Sometimes I just have maybe one year as they go through their rent cycle. That’s why it’s been so good to be fully ‘feet on the ground’ here over the last year and a half, not having a full-time job anymore like the role I left (and loved!) at CSPC. I’ve just been home writing, staying steadfast in my discipline of exploring Scripture, exploring the intersection of art and faith, and being available for my neighborhood. If I’m on the front porch, people stop by — these are my opportunities to love them and learn from them. I don’t have a lot of time to mess around. All this is to the glory of God.
Here’s the next chapter, as far as we can see, of the redemptive story God has us in. There’s a building right around the block from us- it’s a dump, it’s been grandfathered in as commercial, and my husband and I just closed on it. We’re going to try to get a neighborhood bakery off the ground. The area where we live is a federally designated food desert. 25 percent of Knoxvillians don’t have a car, and most of them are out in East Knox, so access to quality food is a problem. People can go to the gas station or the Family Dollar and get a 99 cent bag of Hot Cheetos, but they can’t get an apple or something healthy. We’ve been looking at that situation and asking two questions: ‘What is good for our neighborhood, and what is sustainable?’ Now we’ve got this crazy dream that hopefully is going to happen. It’ll be a subscription bakery. I’ll have a whole bunch of tastings where everybody can sample whatever they want. We’ll give them a menu and say, ‘Do you want this delivered every week or every other week?’ Whole wheat bread, dinner rolls, hearty herbed focaccia, sourdough, rum cake, cinnamon rolls for the next morning, a bucket of cookie dough for the weekend, whatever. Then they can swing through and pick it up on their way home from work between 4 and 6. I’d love to employ the kids in our neighborhood. And, because housing is such an issue out here, we could maybe even make space for an apartment in the top part of the building where an intern or a manager could live. That’s our next step. We have money from when we sold our original house out west, and we’re not comfortable with that being in a bank. We just keep on trying to turn it, recycle it, and put it to work for the Kingdom. God’s brought much encouraging fruit from our time here so far, and we’re prayerfully hopeful there’s much more to come. And… I’ve already started my next book.
NOTE: Suzanne’s new book, The Woodbine Chronicles: A Neighborhood Love Story, is available online or at the local Bear Den bookstore, which will deliver it to your door for free.