Holy Saturday was a fitting day for Jason Payne to help three of his friends move into a five-room cottage on Hilton Street that includes this handwritten sign in the front window: “We love because he first loved us — John 4:19.”
“It’s our welcome mat,” said Payne, a 30-year-old former stock analyst, Collierville High graduate and Central Church member who, along with nine of his young, single, suburban friends — six men, four women — are moving into Orange Mound, one of America’s most historically and culturally significant African-American neighborhoods.
It’s also one of the city’s most blighted, impoverished and distressed neighborhoods. Payne’s 1940s-era house, which he bought at auction last fall for $12,000, is on a street with a half dozen board-ups, at least one burnout, and several houses that look as if they could collapse at any moment. According to a recent University of Memphis study, 45 percent of the properties in Orange Mound are in disrepair, the highest rate in the city.
Payne says they’ve spent more than $30,000 renovating the house, which was vacant and gutted after thieves tore the place up and stole everything that could be removed, including the kitchen sink. Although Payne is now chief financial officer for a local real estate startup, he says he and his friends are moving into Orange Mound to make a spiritual investment, not a financial one.
“We’re not going to save anyone,” said Payne. “We’re going to serve our neighbors, and together with our neighbors to glorify God and make Jesus proud. It’s easier to love your neighbors if they are actually your neighbors.”
For Payne and his friends, who met at church or in ministries such as Orange Mound Outreach Ministries, this isn’t a social experiment. It’s a theological imperative. They are part of a growing number of “missional communities” across the city and around the country — small groups of Christians who move into distressed neighborhoods to be good neighbors, not do-gooders.
The largest local missional community seems to be in Binghamton, a distressed neighborhood now served by residents connected to the Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, Service Over Self, Eikon Ministries, Caritas Village and Christ Community Health Services, among others.
“Missional is a posture. It’s a way of life,” said Brandon Hatmaker, a missional church leader from Texas who spoke Thursday at Faith Baptist Church in Bartlett. “It requires being present and making true friendships. Missional doesn’t get in a hurry.”
Payne and most of his friends are members of Central Church in Collierville, a nondenominational megachurch with a history of supporting inner-city missions and ministries and racial reconciliation. But running a food pantry, volunteering at an after-school program, or taking a bus trip to Promise Keepers isn’t the same as moving into a neighborhood most people try to avoid, especially at night.
“Christians are called to be redemptive agents in the world,” said Don Gilbert, Central Church’s director of missions who with his wife is working to deepen the church’s commitment to Orange Mound. “This is about being the church — not going to a building called the church, but going to people as the church.”
Gilbert and other missional church leaders in Memphis have been deeply influenced by Dr. John Perkins, a Mississippi pastor who will deliver the keynote address Saturday at the 2013 Urban Summit at Christ United Methodist Church. Perkins teaches that Christian community development begins with relocation, with Christians moving into neighborhoods in need and seeing “their” needs as “ours.”
“Living the gospel means desiring for your neighbor and your neighbor’s family that which you desire for yourself and your family,” Perkins said. “Effective ministries plant and build communities of believers that have a personal stake in the development of their neighbors.
Payne and his friends are not the first missional Christians to move into Orange Mound. Dr. Larry Lloyd, founder of the Memphis Leadership Foundation (MLF), which trains and supports urban ministry leaders, moved into Orange Mound in 1977 with his wife. Their youngest daughter was born there.
“I was an outsider till I moved in,” said Lloyd, who lived near historic Mt. Moriah East Baptist Church for four years before moving his family to a similar neighborhood Southern California to work with Perkins in 1981. “After I moved in, I wasn’t doing for them, we were doing for each other.”
MLF is one of a number of faith-based organizations supporting Orange Mound with ministries and new neighbors. Christ Community Health Services has a clinic there and a few of its physicians live in the neighborhood. Other new residents work for Memphis Athletic Ministries, Service Over Self, Eikon Ministries, and Second Presbyterian Church.
MLF is now run by Howard Eddings, who grew up in Orange Mound near the corner of Spottswood and Pendleton. He attended Hanley Elementary and graduated from Melrose High in 1980. MLF has academic enrichment programs at both schools, and is working with the Aspire Public Schools, a charter organization that will take over Hanley in the fall.
“There is so much going on in Orange Mound,” Eddings said. “So many are looking for ways to engage and serve people in that community. I’m pushing them to have a level of sensitivity to the people who have lived here for generations.”
Eddings remembers how the old Sky-Vue Drive-in on Park Avenue made the neighborhood glow on summer evenings when he was a child. “None of the people who lived in the neighborhood could go watch the movies there, because we were black,” Eddings said, “but sometimes we’d sneak around the back where we could see the screen, although we couldn’t hear anything.”
Eddings is working on a project to reclaim that property for the community. The Opportunity Zone (O Zone), a planned $4 million, 40,000-square-foot multipurpose facility, would provide a multitude of community services including job training, education and career counseling, and even a cybercafe where teens can work and learn.
“I admire what Jason and the young folks from Central Church are doing, as long as they don’t try to make this neighborhood their project,” Eddings said. “They’re going to live here, but are they going to walk and run here, shop here, eat out here? I hope people of color who grew up there are going to hold them accountable for becoming part of the neighborhood. This is their reality.”
Orange Mound has been Tyler Glove’s reality for all of his 83 years.
“I love Orange Mound. I just never wanted to leave,” said Glover, the unofficial “Mayor of Orange Mound” who ran a little restaurant on Park known as Tyler’s Place for more than two decades. “Different people move in and out, more now than before, but it’s still one of the best neighborhoods,”
Glover lives with his wife, Virginia, on Marechaneil Street in a 1,200-square-foot house they bought for $8,000 in 1963. They still attend historic Beulah Baptist Church. Three of his grown children still live in Orange Mound.
Over the decades, his Orange Mound neighbors have included a number of the city’s first black elected officials — A.W. Willis, H.T. Lockard, Harper Brewer, Kenneth Whalum Sr. and Fred Davis. Davis still lives and works in Orange Mound, but Glover has seen most of his middle-class neighbors move away or pass away.
Last month, he met two new neighbors, Wendi Weber and Candace Davenport, two members of the “missional community” who moved into a 1,200-square-foot cottage on Marechaneil built in 1947. “I see those girls walk by every now and then,” said Glover, “I say hello to them. They seem like nice people. Very friendly.”
Weber, 28, who works at a bakery, attends Collierville Bible Church and met Payne at school. She admits she didn’t tell her parents where she was moving until right before she did. “They aren’t entirely comfortable with me being here,” Weber said. “I’m not either, I guess, but that’s the point. I know that when I’m outside my comfort zone, I’m more dependent on God — and my neighbors.”
Orange Mound’s proud history of home-ownership has been a blessing and a bit of a curse. Although it has been a major source of subprime loans, the neighborhood has a relatively low rate of foreclosures, renters and Section 8-voucher users, compared to other high-poverty neighborhoods such as Frayser and South Memphis.
“So we’ve had a tough time attracting government and nonprofit housing dollars,” Michael Saine, executive director of the Orange Mound Development Corporation.
Still, the Orange Mound CDC is working steadily to improve housing in the blighted community. It has built or refurbished 92 homes, including 14 on Tunstall Street, one block west of Marechaneil. Another 22 are planned for Ethel Street, four blocks farther west.
Saine, 40, owns the home he grew up in near Melrose High. He hopes his son, who is about to graduate from college, will become the fourth-generation in his family to live in a home they own in Orange Mound.
“There’s been a slow, steady decline in the neighborhood over the years, but I see older people, retired people, coming back. And I see new people moving in,” Saine said. “We could do more if we had more resources.”
Rev. Reggie Tucker feels the same way. He’s the founder and director of Orange Mound Outreach Ministry (OMOM), an after-school academic and athletic program located in the old Victory Funeral Home on Park Avenue. Payne, Weber and other members of the missional community are regular volunteers.
“We used to process death here. Now we promote life,” said Tucker, 54, who started the ministry a decade ago with his wife, Mary. Tucker grew up in the funeral home, established in 1947 by three people, including his late grandfather, J.S. Edwards. Tucker’s father owns M.J. Edwards Funeral Home nearby.
Tucker owns six houses in the neighborhood. He bought them at tax sales for $199 each. He’s renting three to Payne and his friends for $500 a month each.
“I’m sort of their cultural adviser,” Tucker said, then laughed about having to tell his new tenants to look around before they get out of their cars, and not to give money to people on the street. “If you aren’t involved in drugs, you’re safe here. You’re not going to be bothered. But you also don’t want to become an easy target.”
Tucker’s new neighbors have another adviser: D.J., a Melrose sophomore whose trying to help them get their bearings. “I showed them the rough streets and the quiet streets. Hilton is quiet, I know what y’all need,” D.J. said, speaking of Steve Hubbard, Spencer Staton and Stephen Kenrick, the three guys who moved in Saturday.
“We don’t know what Orange Mound needs,” Payne said. “We know what we need. We need to follow Jesus and love our neighbors. That’s why we’re here. We’re here for D.J., and D.J.’s here for us.”
The Urban Summit
What: Training for urban ministry in matters of biblical justice, community development, and education reform.
When: 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Christ United Methodist Church, 4488 Poplar.
Cost: Registration is $59. Continental breakfast and lunch included.
Speakers: John M. Perkins, Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development;
Matthew Soerens, U.S. church training specialist for World Relief; Nicole Baker Fulgham, founding president of The Expectations Project, a nonprofit education organization; Dr. Rick Donlon, co-founder of Christ Community Health Services; Stephen C. Bush, Shelby County public defender and founder of the Jericho Project.
For more information visit theurbansummit.org.