Statesville, N.C.

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” — Jerry L. Van Marter

Sometimes we are shocked when we get a good dose of reality, when we see what is really happening around us and realize it’s not what we thought it was at all.

This was the case for North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta.

In 2003, Atlanta was identified by the FBI as one of 14 U.S. cities with the highest rates of children being used for prostitutes. Mayor Shirley Franklin was surprised, and ordered a deeper investigation into the problem. The 2005 mayor’s report issued as a result identified the corner of North Avenue and Peachtree Street as one of the three in the city that was particularly problematic.

That’s the corner that had been home to North Avenue since 1898. 

The Rev. Scott Weimer, the pastor of North Avenue, was also quite surprised and disturbed when he saw this news on the front page of the city paper.

“We never saw it,” Weimer said. “It was hidden in plain view. It goes on, but we didn’t look for it so we didn’t even see it.” 

The designation was enough of a concern that Weimer felt compelled to talk about it with the members of his church. It was a delicate subject, but risk-taking mission and service is one of the core values of North Avenue, so he decided to bring it up in a sermon one Sunday.

“I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get, but it was immediate and powerful,” Weimer said. “Everyone, young and old, asked immediately ‘What can we do?’ I was stunned and inspired by their response and felt a need to move forward and help them answer that question.”

As a diverse urban ministry, North Avenue has a history of engaging in issues of compassionate justice in the city. Weimer calls it their street cred.

“North Avenue is one of our most diverse churches,” said Ed Albright, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, of which North Avenue is a member. “It’s an amazing church made up of all sorts of people — rich, poor, immigrants, plus a large campus ministry that brings them a lot of young people, more than most churches.”

So, with the response of his congregation in mind, Weimer contacted Concerned Black Clergy, a group he felt would be vital to his efforts and with whom North Avenue has worked before. In conjunction with Concerned Black Clergy, Weimer invited other faith leaders and the mayor to an interfaith summit to decide how to move forward in the work to eliminate child sexual exploitation from the streets of Atlanta. 

The groups met several times, and after 250-300 supporters showed up at a midnight prayer vigil, eight churches, including North Avenue, decided it was time to take the next step. The church hired consultants to formulate a plan to move forward.

Street GRACE (Galvanizing Resources Against Child Exploitation) was the result. Street GRACE is a non-profit network created to assemble the resources of participating churches and other groups to combat child sexual exploitation. 

“It’s an unusually diverse circle of partners,” Weimer said. “It’s an unusual interfaith partnership as well as a diverse circle of faith and civic partners, but it emphasizes partnership among others and focus on the issue and working together.

“We wanted to be able to answer the question ‘What can we do to help?’ We wanted to be able to give solid options and get people involved,” Weimer said.

Street GRACE works in five key areas. It focuses on prayer, acknowledging that the fight is a spiritual battle against an evil. It works for advocacy and teaches volunteers how to tell the story and lobby for change. It works for aftercare by raising money for new centers to help girls removed from the sex trade. Street GRACE also aims to stop the problem before it happens by working in prevention, identifying at-risk neighborhoods and encouraging mentoring programs. In the fifth focus, Street GRACE always looks to raise awareness to the problem. 

“We speak at churches, for groups, anywhere we can,” said Cheryl DeLuca-Johnson, head of Street GRACE. “Awareness is key. Citizens need to know and mobilize local resources.”

DeLuca-Johnson said Street GRACE has signed up some 300 volunteers and is looking to match them with local agencies and non-profits already in place. Street GRACE wants to match the talents and passion of their volunteers with the right groups. 

“In the past year we’ve also become involved in state legislation,” she said. “We support bills and initiatives that promote our cause. We judge our success by making sure those making laws know this is important to us.”

Volunteers recently presented members of the state legislature with 300 white carnations, meant to represent the 200-300 girls each month estimated to be victims of sexual exploitation in Atlanta. 

Street GRACE also hopes to serve as an example for other cities. Weimer noted that the problem is not unique to Atlanta. He said organizers took time and care to develop the branding and Web site so that it could be used as a model that other cities can follow. 

“Everything we do is done with an eye on setting an example,” DeLuca-Johnson said. “We would love to see our efforts duplicated in other cities.”

As for North Avenue, the church remains heavily involved with Street GRACE, hosting the group’s monthly meetings while Weimer serves on the board of directors. Weimer said his congregation has been supportive with both time and money. Many have learned the importance of legislation and laws to protect children and the value of places to go for aftercare and rehabilitation. 

While child prostitution is an edgy issue, Weimer is also impressed with the continued enthusiasm of his members. When approached recently by a young mother concerned about the subject coming up during sermons occasionally when her children were present, Weimer asked her and the congregation at large to help him find ways to discuss the issue while not offending anyone. He was surprised when the strongest response came from several older women, a group he most feared would find the subject offensive.

“They told me that we must discuss this problem and that I couldn’t worry that some people might find it disturbing or offensive,” Weimer said. “They told me to press forward and that we cannot bury this problem due to the sensitivities of some people. We must raise awareness, and in order to do that, we must talk about it.”

Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, NC, where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.