I was sitting in church, my second year of seminary, when I noticed a woman entering at the back of the sanctuary. She was accompanied by a young man in a wheelchair and an older gentleman who was blind. The three found a seat near the front of the sanctuary and joined in worship.
Chatting with them afterwards, I learned that the older fellow, Jim, had high hopes of joining a choir. Donnie, who wasn’t verbal, loved rhythm and music and keeping a beat on the back of the pew in front of him. Molly was working as a community chaplain, to enable folks in group homes to choose congregations in the community where they’d like to worship and engage.
As Molly spoke, my heart suddenly started beating a little quicker. And for the rest of the evening four words pounded inside my head, “That is a THING?!?!?” When I saw it with my eyes, the unarticulated longings of my heart were confirmed. I knew, “That’s the kingdom. And I want in.” Eighteen months later, I was doing Molly’s job in another area of the state. Because I’d seen it with my eyes.
A New Thing in Durham, North Carolina
Four years ago, conversations began in Durham, North Carolina, to discuss the growing desire, of many, to live in community with family members or friends with disabilities. As you might guess, I had exactly the same greedy response as I had seventeen years earlier: “I want in.” A vision for the North Street neighborhood emerged in 2011, with plans to develop a declining area of urban Durham. In the last five months, nine households—including the one I share with my husband and three preteens—have moved in to the neighborhood, with many more unique configurations of “family” on the way.
I want to give you a peek at this budding community, in case, like me, your heart has been longing for something you’ve not yet seen with your eyes.
John is nineteen. He graduated from high school in 2012, and is continuing his education at Riverside High School where he’s a leader in the special needs community there. He works at the YMCA five afternoons a week and some Saturdays. John lives in his own apartment and enjoys playing video games, texting, going to church and eating Twizzlers.
Annie is twenty-three. She lives in a townhouse with her parents and works at a downtown movie theater, seven blocks away. Annie, who is extremely social, is thrilled to have moved from a more rural area to be near friends. In a heartbeat, she’ll break into song, belting out, “I’m an urban girl!” Annie is currently psyched for the first ever North Street Neighborhood Girls’ Night Sleepover Party.
Sharise, thirty-two, has lived in a group home for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities for her adult life. Two months ago, with the support of folks in her church family, Sharise moved into an apartment where she is living independently. She’s the proud owner of a dog named Vincent, a founding member of the newly forming neighborhood Horror Movie Club and a precious friend both to neighbors who are new to the street and the ones who have anchored the community for decades.
Our friends Todd, Marnie and Shane are patiently awaiting confirmation of their move-in dates. Todd, who for years lived with his mom, until she passed away, will share a duplex with his sister. Marnie, who’s always lived at home with her parents, will move in with a friend from church. Shane, who receives help with his physical care from a roommate, will move into a wheelchair-accessible apartment.
While all of these relationships have been sort of…organic…a neighborhood initiative new to Durham, which is as purposeful as can be, is called Friendship House. Six years ago, in Holland Michigan, a sustainable housing model was launched: young adults with disabilities shared life and living space with grad students from Western Seminary. In staggered waves, student residents moved on after three years and core residents stayed to welcome and teach a new crop of students each year. The experience is one which has been nothing short of life-changing for those involved. Here in Durham, Friendship House is becoming a reality through a partnership between Duke Divinity School and Reality Ministries.
I mentioned sustainable, right? This is huge. Because money is being raised up front to pay for the two houses currently under renovation—by amazing God-sent developers—some of the modest rent to be paid by residents will go toward upkeep and the rest will be poured back into disability ministry and scholarships. (If you’ve caught the vision, and have an extra $700, 000 burning a whole in your deep pockets, let’s talk: FriendshipHouseDurham@gmail.com)
Freedom For All
A few days ago I asked Sharise what the best part of living in the neighborhood has been so far. Without hesitating, she answered, “Just being on my own, being free and everything. I get to come and go when I want to, not being locked down.”
Before I was ever able to put my finger on it, Sharise named what is happening in our neighborhood. What Jesus announced he’d do in his inaugural address is happening in every direction when I look out the windows of my home. Prisoners experience freedom. Good news is proclaimed to the poor. While no one’s been cured of blindness, yet, the blind are seen, heard, known and loved. Please hear this: I’m not suggesting, in any way, that we’re Messianic. Yuck, right? I’m saying that a lot of us are very grateful to be included in something sweet and new God seems to be doing. Maybe more importantly, I’m wanting you to see it, taste it, so that you know it’s a thing which just might have the name of your city on it. If it does, even if you don’t have $700K, let’s talk.
Visit us when you’re in Durham. We’re located right behind Full Steam brewery. We’re young and old. We’re Protestant and Roman Catholic and who-knows-what. We’re differently-abled. We’re poor and resourced. We’re employed and seeking-employment. We’re African-American, Mexican, Mexican-American, Caucasian, Asian Indian and African.
Mostly, we’re just glad to be a part of this thing.
Margot Starbuck is a speaker, volunteer and author of The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail and Small Things With Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor. Her next book, Permission Granted: And Other Thoughts on Living Graciously Among Sinners and Saints releases in March 2013.