Clarkston has been synonymous with refugee resettlement for decades. Described as the Ellis Island of the South, and the most diverse square-mile in North America, the small city includes a number of faith and non-profit groups assisting and accompanying refugees. According to a CBS News report, more than 60 languages are spoken in Clarkston. Fifty-three percent of its residents were born outside the United States.

The worldwide character of the community shows up in the array of languages on storefronts lining Market Street, and on the campus of Memorial Drive Ministries, where signs welcome refugees from five continents. Memorial Drive Ministries and the work of its on-site partners is a continuation of community programming begun by the PC(USA) congregation that used to worship there: Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church.

On February 2, the Co-Moderators of the 225th General Assembly, the Revs. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace and Shavon Starling-Louis, saw Memorial Drive Ministries up close, visiting the campus during a trip to Atlanta and receiving a tour of the buildings and grounds from Executive Director David Roth.

Memorial Drive Ministries tour participants, including the Rev. Fahed Abu-Akel, Moderator of the 214th General Assembly (2002), far left. All photos courtesy of the Rev. Andy James, Stated Clerk, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, February 2, 2024.

Memorial Drive Ministries tour participants, including the Rev. Dr. Fahed Abu-Akel, Moderator of the 214th General Assembly (2002), far left. All photos courtesy of the Rev. Andy James, Stated Clerk, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.

“Memorial Drive Ministries embodies what it means to receive the stranger in a way that reflects Jesus’ teachings that cherishes and recognizes each individual as a gift of God,” said Santana-Grace after the visit. “I’m grateful for the work and vision of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta for coming alongside and supporting this and other creative ministries.”

Starling-Louis, who first learned of Memorial Drive’s refugee ministry during her student days at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, said it was inspiring to be there as co-moderator, especially after learning how the presbytery and former congregation had redeveloped the land and buildings for new purposes.

“There was such a love for the ministries happening there,” said Starling-Louis before mentioning the multiple church groups that now hold services in the sanctuary, a daycare center for children and mothers, and schooling for English-language learners. An on-site sewing collective so impressed her with its beautiful wares she purchased a handbag.

Roth, who has led Memorial Drive Ministries since 2018, said it was an honor to welcome the co-moderators to a place that has welcomed so many from so far.

“The co-moderators’ care for local churches was clear during their visit, and their encouragement for local churches to say ‘yes’ to the communities around them,” he said.

Roth talked with Starling-Louis and Santana-Grace about the realities of international displacement, including how globally “the human family is fleeing danger faster than we are finding solutions for those in harm’s way. That’s a problem that won’t be fixed without local communities who are committed to the moral project of welcoming those fleeing danger.”

In a theological context, he often thinks about “how Christ comes to us through strangers. Ministry with refugees is one of our opportunities to serve Christ among and alongside them.”

Memorial Drive Ministries welcome to refugees includes hosting more than a dozen partner groups on-site, including Christian worship services in Swahili, Lingala, French, Mara, Chin, Burmese, Amharic and English; the Amani Women Center and Sewing Academy where Starling-Louis purchased the handbag; the Center for Victims of Torture (Georgia); the Shalom Afterschool Initiative; and the Refugee Family Literacy Program.

Everything about today’s Memorial Drive Ministries goes back to Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, a congregation that expanded on the Clarkston campus from the 1950s into the ‘80s, including the addition of kitchen space, a gym and outdoor play areas.

The congregation met the realities of membership decline in the 21st century by “proactively opening its doors to the wider community,” Roth said. “Everyone rallied around that new model.” He gave special credit to the Rev. George Tatro, pastor as Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church.

“I’m always eager to lift up and honor the legacy of that congregation,” Roth added. “They planted a church that was designed around worship, relationship and service to the community.”

225th General Assembly Co-Moderators the Revs. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace and Shavon Starling-Louis (left to right).
Executive Director of Memorial Drive Ministries David Roth

Left: 225th General Assembly Co-Moderators the Revs. Ruth Faith Santana-Grace and Shavon Starling-Louis (left to right). Right: Executive Director of Memorial Drive Ministries David Roth.

The Rev. Joy Fisher, congregational consultant for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and former pastor at Midway Presbyterian Church, is a board member of Memorial Drive Ministries. She has a special role connecting congregations to the presbytery and to opportunities to serve and support refugee ministries through MDM.

“From the very creation of the nonprofit, the presbytery offered support in various ways, including initial grant money and sharing of things like insurance and office expenses,” she said.

Fisher also praised Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church and the refugee support efforts Tatro initiated. Now that Memorial Drive Ministries is an independent nonprofit, it can access grants of a kind a congregation doesn’t qualify for.

“And there’s a real confidence in David Roth and his leadership,” Fisher said. “Memorial Drive Ministries is now the place in the presbytery where if a church wants to work with migrant ministry they start there. It’s like having an international mission opportunity in your backyard.”

Memorial Drive Ministries’ devotion to welcome has inspired churches across the Southeast. Roth travels to congregations for workshops and minute for missions.

“We look at the news [about refugees and other migrants] and no one has good answers,” Fisher said. “But scripture says ‘Love your neighbor,’ and these are our neighbors. We ask ourselves, how do we love them in the name of Christ?”

Illness kept Fisher from joining the Memorial Drive tour, but she has enjoyed hearing about the “passion and joy” accompanying the co-moderators’ visit. “It’s powerful to know the co-moderators have experienced the beautiful thing the spirit is doing here,” she said.

Roth and Fisher pointed out that different communities have different needs and capacities when it comes to service. Any church group looking to do more to help neighbors doesn’t just need to know who its neighbors are, but who it is.

“What was key to starting here was the clarity of our core values,” Fisher said. “There can be politics that divide people or power plays or anxiety about different things. But here people at their core were committed to a ministry of welcome and hospitality.”

She added that it’s important to find the right cooperative partners in your area. Members of Greater Atlanta congregations came together as an initial steering committee for Memorial Drive Ministries, bringing expertise in law, finance, real estate and other areas.

Roth said that one thing he learned early in his call to refugee ministry is “the way you think about and speak about your space matters a lot. Thinking of the space as an asset to the community is important. So is a level of attention to making that a reality.”

That could mean thinking about ways to use church property seven days a week, or how members can be more present in the community beyond church walls.

Map showing some places community members of Memorial Drive Ministries arrived from.

Map showing some places community members of Memorial Drive Ministries arrived from.

The day before their Memorial Drive Ministries tour, Santana-Grace and Starling-Louis visited Columbia Theological Seminary, a school Santana-Grace said is “leaning into a new season, reaffirming their commitment to equip a new generation of leaders in a way that understands the current and changing needs of the church. We had opportunities to meet with the president, Dr. Victor Aloyo, as well as his executive council, faculty and trustees. A highlight of our time was spent over lunch with students as they shared a sense of their hopes for ministry. God is clearly at work in this place!”

Starling-Louis connected the time at MDM to CTS, where she sat in on a class by Drs. Anna Carter Florence and Jacob Myers where the discussion topic was parables. Students were given the assignment to go into the community and come back with their own parable to share with the class: “The kingdom/kin-dom of heaven is like ...”

As the co-moderators walked around the Memorial Drive Ministries campus, Starling-Louis noticed a baby in a stroller being pushed by a woman wearing a headscarf. As they passed by, the baby reached out a hand and waved to the group. Starling-Louis found herself thinking back to the parable exercise and saying: “The kin-dom of heaven is like a baby waving at you.”

Roth said he couldn’t stop thinking about those words after the co-moderators’ visit. The guests had been welcomed to this place of refuge by one of its smallest community members.