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Social entrepreneurship + First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta = Mission transformation

Those awarded Epiphany grants described their projects during a Sunday morning worship service at First Presbyterian Atlanta in February.

We’ve seen the creativity popping on TV’s “Shark Tank.” What inspiration might that lead to for churches?

Here’s the short version. Not long ago, First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta took $250,000 and invited entrepreneurs from the community to make a pitch for a chunk of that money, in what it’s calling Epiphany. The applicants shaped their proposals over a series of months with coaching from members of the congregation in areas such as developing a business plan and building a budget.

It was a new way for the congregation to think about mission — using a social entrepreneurship model that asks people from the community to present ideas for transformation, and breathes life into those possibilities using the talents and expertise of Presbyterians sitting in the pews.

“We saw there were places we were not using all the resources entrusted to us,” said Rebekah LeMon, First Atlanta’s executive pastor, who has been in charge of shepherding the Epiphany process.

Photographs courtesy First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta

“We saw there are times when we congratulate ourselves for serving others, and times when we treat others the way we think they deserve to be treated, not the way we want to be treated or as God has treated us,” she said, describing during worship the approach the Epiphany planning team developed. “So this planning team started to challenge ourselves. We said, ‘What can we do to honor another person? What can we do that isn’t a transaction or a handout but is loving and empowering? What can we do to turn ourselves out, to look past old models of mission and service – and not create more church programs?’ We had to ask ourselves what are we missing? … What resources do we have that we’re not using? People, passion, expertise, space.”

When the first call for applications went out, 88 people responded. A screening team of church members narrowed that to 22 people who entered a “navigation process” — an extended mentorship, paired one-on-one with church members who spent several months helping the applicants refine their ideas, work on pitches and develop staffing strategies.

Then those 22 presented their pitches to a team of volunteers from the congregation — taking their best shot. “We were very tough about it,” said Tony Sundermeier, the church’s senior pastor. “They had five minutes. You had a timer. … We made them present a very professional proposal,” and in the end the team chose five finalists to fund — ranging from a coffee shop that creates jobs and community for refugees to a cost-sharing initiative to make housing more affordable to people who are employed but earn relatively low wages.

Those awarded Epiphany grants described their projects during a Sunday morning worship service at First Presbyterian Atlanta in February.

First Presbyterian is a large congregation, and this was a big-dollar project — funded by $70,000 the church got paid for agreeing to allow a movie to be filmed on its property, plus $180,000 raised in a “second mile” giving opportunity during the 2018 stewardship drive.

There are lessons here, however, for even the smallest of Presbyterian congregations. People who come to church bring with them vast professional and life expertise — wisdom about everything from real estate to plumbing to law to banking to cooking. Along with their dollars and their time, what they know how to do can, with a certain amount of creativity, become a valuable asset — potentially teaming up with the best ideas that local people have for making their community a better place.

“Part of the reason we got here was we had an honest look at what resources we have to offer and what needs our community was bringing. Any church can do that,” LeMon said.

For example, many congregations have space that’s unused during the week — and a big challenge for many ventures wanting to get started is “not wanting to pay for work space,” she said.

Find one good idea. “Rally around that idea,” LeMon said. “It doesn’t have to be a contest. It doesn’t have to be big bucks. The notion is really just to empower people. … Empower people to use their gifts.”

PadSplit works to provide affordable housing options for people who have jobs, generally earning $20,000 to $25,000 annually, but for whom housing in the area is too expensive. The participants each have a furnished room in a shared home, and save money by bundling costs for laundry, WiFi and utilities.

The leadership at First Atlanta also has found that Epiphany is igniting new energy for mission — giving a sense of hope.

“I think it has given people something that pushes back against some feelings of powerlessness and helplessness,” LeMon said. “We hear all the time things are so terrible in the world and we don’t know what to do. Here you have these 88 people who have seen some need and have the courage to say: ‘I’m going to try and touch that need. I have an idea. I’m willing to put myself out there.’ I think that’s been a real inspiration and a real reminder to our congregation that we are God’s hands and feet in the world, and we actually can bring about real change in the face of what seems overwhelming sometimes.”

The idea for Epiphany grew out of the church’s strategic planning process and its longtime commitment to community ministry and outreach, which Sundermeier says “has always been in the DNA of the church.”

At first, the leadership was toying with the idea of social entrepreneurship – perhaps starting a coffee shop or finding a way to use the church’s commercial kitchen for social good. As the conversations proceeded, “we got fairly stuck” in that process, LeMon said.

“We were trying to push our congregation to a new paradigm for mission. To say, it doesn’t require people to come to us. It’s not a handout. It’s not an old service model. It’s something that’s empowering and dignifying. And our church is in a unique position of having a lot of talented people with professional expertise and resources that can really bless the world far beyond a traditional ‘if you build it here they will come here’ kind of model.

Purposeful pecans is a new initiative to support the mission of Meals-On-Wheels-Atlanta

“We weren’t sure what we should create that would best use resources and meet the needs of the people who are already coming to us, who are literally our neighbors. Then we had sort of a serendipitous or providential, if you want to use that language, meeting. A member of our church sort of cold-called Tony and me and said that she had someone she wanted us to meet.”

That person was Brian Jones, a pastor who had started a social entrepreneurship project at his former congregation, a church in suburban Minneapolis, and went on to found Innové Studios as a way to teach other churches how to become involved in such ventures.

Jones had the idea “to do something really brand new, out of the box, away from the old models of mission,” Sunderemeier said. “It was quite literally a sending out. It was: Invite people with great ideas here, give them resources, build them up, mentor them, but then send them out. Don’t hold onto it ourselves.”

While the money was sent from a church into the community, the applicants weren’t required to be church members or even people of faith, although some were. The application did present First Atlanta’s mission statement and its values as a congregation, and asked the applicants to articulate how their ventures supported those ideas.

“So they didn’t have to affirm the Apostles’ Creed,” LeMon said. “But they did have to articulate, for example, how their venture conveys God’s radical hospitality. That was very much part of the inspiration of our congregation as well, to think we’re not limited to what congregations do. Our participation in God’s mission reaches far beyond that.”

Refuge Coffee Co. provides living wage jobs, job training and mentorship to resettled refugees

Some volunteers who became most passionate about Epiphany had not been involved in other mission projects at First Atlanta. Through offering to share their professional skills – as lawyers, accountants, communicators and more – some of them began to think more about their own work lives as having a sense of vocation and call.

Epiphany also opened church members’ eyes to needs in Atlanta on issues such incarceration, housing insecurity and refugee resettlement.

After the money was awarded – a range of $40,000 to $70,000 per project – those receiving the grants spoke during worship on a Sunday in February — the stories they told of the work they’re doing in the community and why became the sermon of the day, interwoven with a liturgy that LeMon wrote.

“Part of the double-edged sword of a big city is it is diverse, there is a lot happening here,” she said. “But it also is very easy to be in your own space and stay there,” to not notice others’ realities.

“To know that 20 minutes from where I’m sitting right now is the most diverse square mile in the entire country in Clarkston, Georgia — 

most of our congregation doesn’t go to Clarkston, Georgia, even though it’s that close. So to talk about refugee resettlement as our neighborhood, those are our neighbors, to realize it’s that close … that’s a big thing.”

Another grant went to a lawyer who runs an eviction clinic. To have him come before the congregation and say, “Here’s how that happens, here’s the eviction process … that’s a light-bulb” moment for many, LeMon said.

“That’s an epiphany moment, where they say, oh, I didn’t know that in Georgia somebody can be served and be evicted from their home in as short as a few days. If you don’t have the resources to navigate that process, what’s the impact of that one moment for your family and your kids and your kids’ education and your belongings and all these interconnected challenges? Not to be glib, but I think these ventures have challenged us to see our city, to really see it. To see more of it. To think really broadly about who our neighbors are. It’s pretty easy to think we already know that. In fact, it takes a lot of intentionality to really know who your neighbors are.”

The idea of “sending out” to others as a form of mission rather than having the church be in charge of what happens “really reminded people to live into a theology of abundance and generosity, and not to feel like everything is scarce and threatened all the time,” LeMon said.

 “In the midst of conversations all the time about dying churches and the struggle for attendance and participation, members and resources, this is really a counter-model. This says not only do we have enough but you are part of our enough, and it can really be a blessing to the world. We don’t have to hold it here inside our walls. We can do good things simply out of a spirit of generosity and abundance.”

Down the road, First Atlanta hopes to continue with more rounds of Epiphany funding.

“I want to lead it,” LeMon said, even though “the logistics of this this have been enormous. It’s been a huge effort. … It’s also one of the most energizing and inspiring things I’ve done in my professional life. I hope we do it again.”

For Sundermeier, some of the most powerful moments have come when those outside of the church – such as a young college intern at an Atlanta marketing firm – provided answers that he’d been struggling unsuccessfully to figure out.

When that happened – when she spoke the words he’d been trying so hard to find but couldn’t, using theological language without really even knowing it – “I started to cry,” Sundermeier said.

“This for me is the epitome of the whole experience, this being surprised by God, inviting us to participate in what God is doing in ways that we couldn’t have fathomed or imagined. Constantly being surprised by our applicants and by our members and the gifts and the passions that they had, what we were capable of. … It took a ton of time and effort. It really was this joy-filled surprise of what’s possible.”

Click here to watch the First Presbyterian worship service at which the grant award winners described their projects for the congregation.


Eviction assistance mobile app

Last year, 40,000 people – one in five renters – were evicted in Fulton County, the county in which Atlanta is situated. If the whole metropolitan area were included, there’d be a lot more.

Andrew Thompson, a lawyer who runs an eviction clinic at the Fulton County courthouse assisted about 1,000 of those people — giving advice about how the process works and what to do once they’ve received an eviction summons. What he’s trying to figure out: “How do I reach those 39,000 other people?”

Now he has some hope of doing so, with support from a $40,000 grant from the Epiphany project. Thompson runs the eviction clinic inside the county clerk’s office six hours each week, in addition to his private practice that focuses on political law. He hopes to use the Epiphany funding to develop an app that would provide those facing eviction with information about how housing court works (such as where to park, what documents to bring, where the courtroom is), reminders of their court dates and tips for successfully mediating a case.

The hope: to get a link to the app included on the eviction summons sent to those about to lose their housing.

The economic reality: anything that can make housing court run more smoothly benefits the judges as well as those facing eviction. “Cases where people are unrepresented consume a lot of the court’s time,” Thompson said. “These are hugely inefficient.” So giving people basic information about what to expect so they can be on time and be prepared benefits everyone involved — and will, he estimates, save the court system significant money.

Starting in the summer of 2018, Thompson began working to develop the app himself, including trying to teach himself to code. A friend who’s enrolled in seminary told him about the First Atlanta invitation for entrepreneurs to compete for funding.

Although he’s a lawyer, “it was terrifying for me,” Thompson said. “I hate public speaking. Oh yeah. I practiced over and over and over and over. I was so nervous.”

He says of the Epiphany project: “I think it’s fantastic. It’s a great way to accomplish good things, but also to make sure those things are sustainable. Part of the reason I decided to make this app idea a company as opposed to a nonprofit is I didn’t want to have to get grants, raise money for every single county that saw high evictions,” 

if he tries to expand the app 

to other areas.

He also recognized that “the cost savings for courts are really attractive, and I wouldn’t want to leave that on the table. … I’m not really looking to be a billionaire out of it, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But just to have something that has momentum of its own is valuable.”

Thompson said he became committed to the eviction issue because “I’m a little bit of a data nerd.” When he noticed some trends he started keeping track of every case, compiling detailed demographic information.

One thing he’s noticed: “People are withholding rent” to try to force landlords to make needed repairs. In Atlanta, “the market’s gone so crazy that affordable housing is substandard housing now.”

About a third of those being evicted “live in just deplorable conditions. They’ve been trying to get their landlords to fix the property. I’ve seen sewage overflowing toilets. I’ve seen homes where you could look up from the living room and see the sky.”

What many don’t understand is that under Georgia law, to push a landlord to fix things, you have to pay the rent and sue the landlord separately. As soon as someone withholds rent, “five days later you can get an eviction notice on your door. Not even five days, actually. Four. The eviction process moves so quickly,” someone can be out on the street in eight days.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what people who are getting evicted look like,” Thompson said. “They are ordinary people, they really are. … In Atlanta, it disproportionately affects black women.” Of the 1,200 people he helped in the eviction clinic, two-thirds were black and 88% were women, many of them with children.

Thompson plans to use the $40,000 he was awarded – “I still can’t believe it” – to hire a coder and bring the app more quickly from idea to fruition.


Automotive  Training Center

When Larry Witherspoon Jr. tries to help young men of color in Atlanta who’ve been incarcerated, he does so in part because he knows how close he came to a life in prison.

Larry Witherspoon (left) with Shawn McHargue, the co-founder of the Automotive Training Center

He grew up in Cleveland, where his dad was a high school teacher, the first in his family to graduate from college. His father sent his children to top private schools, coached sports and worked part time at a youth detention center. “All of those things he was doing really made an imprint on me,” Witherspoon said.

Witherspoon headed off to college on a football scholarship, but “ended up getting in some trouble on my own,” when he started using and then selling drugs and got arrested for assault.

“By the grace of God, the charges were dropped and I didn’t have to serve any time,” Witherspoon said — but he came so close. “It was a big wake-up call,” recognizing that “if I continue down this path, it’s not going to end up well for me.”

He turned to Jesus and his faith, and “all those things my father had done started rushing back to me.”

Witherspoon spent some time in the military and began working in business management for a Fortune 500 company. That didn’t feel right, so he moved to Atlanta to work for a community development program. Through that, he met young men “who reminded me of my younger self,” going into prison or just getting out, coming home with “no real job opportunities” or education or long-term plans.

Witherspoon had an idea: train these young men to become auto mechanics. “I’m a life-long automobile lover,” and he wanted to start a for-profit auto repair shop that trained and hired some of these young men. He applied for a grant with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and got funding to purchase a trailer to transport tools. He began driving to people’s homes fix their cars.

Students at the Automotive Training Center are taught skills to become auto mechanics.

The next step: he found a church that had a vehicle repair facility, which let him use the space at night. And about three years ago, he got shop space of his own — repairing cars for customers and training young men to do the work.

He offers open enrollment car repair training on Monday nights. And he’s launched an entry-level mechanic training program that in its first year trained 15 students, more than 80 percent of whom are currently employed, and only one of whom has been rearrested.

Witherspoon’s Automotive Training Center won a $65,000 grant from Epiphany — funding that will be used to hire a second instructor and take on more students. He found the Epiphany coaching and mentoring process helpful — particularly efforts to connect his project with possible employers for the mechanics as they complete the training, including with an Atlanta automotive dealership.

“There was also a pitch prep Saturday where they brought in consultants for marketing, accounting, public speaking — all things you have to be good and diligent about as a nonprofit organization,” Witherspoon said. “It’s all free.”

In making his pitch, “I just tried to share my heart about this organization,” he said “Our whole mantra is that we’re not here to create anything in them, but to discover the talents and potential in them that may be covered up a little bit because of their life circumstances. … We’re just here to say, ‘It’s in you. Just go ahead and apply it.’”