Scott Weimer, pastor of North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, spoke to participants at a Big Tent 2015 workshop July 31 about the need – even for cautious mainliners – to intentionally take risks.
As in: His congregation didn’t move to the suburbs when the neighborhood changed. They took to the streets – praying for the people who work at nearby businesses and the medical center, for the homeless community. They asked: “How can we love our neighbors, the people who are right around us?”
What they discovered: the problem of child sex trafficking, even in affluent parts of town, and right near the church. “It was shocking to us,” Weimer said. “It was something we didn’t see,” until they began really paying attention.
Some of what they’ve learned along the way.
Older white women from the congregation, longtime members, approached Weimer with what he feared might be criticism when North Avenue became involved with Streetgrace, a nonprofit faith-based organization working to end child sex trafficking in Atlanta and elsewhere. Instead, they told him they were widows, living in big homes with empty bedrooms. They had room to take in children who needed help. Young adults came up and said, “tell us what to do.”
Awareness leads to empowerment
The North Avenue folks have gone to the legislature and public officials to educate decision makers about child sex trafficking and to push for tougher penalties and for change. People have responded and new partnerships emerged – including an effort to educate teachers and PTA leaders about how to look for signs that a child may be vulnerable or being trafficked. More than 9 in 10 of the young people reportedly trafficked in Atlanta attend Georgia public schools, Weimer said.
In the Streetgrace work (with the motto “because children are priceless”), North Avenue partners with other denominations – including a Presbyterian Church in America congregation, megachurches and a charismatic congregation. They’ve formed new alliances, seeing them as “as an opportunity to work for justice,” Weimer said.
North Avenue has grown more diverse, in part because it’s become more welcoming. Refugees and immigrants are invited; after the shootings in Charleston, North Avenue hosted an interfaith prayer service sponsored by African American churches. Other congregations have also found new life through reaching out in hospitality. A small congregation began providing meals over the weekends and holidays for students from “food insecure” families who might not have enough to eat – and whose children might consequently be at risk for sex trafficking. The project brought renewal to that small congregation, Weimer said, and “they’re growing again.”