Selma’s crumbling and decaying buildings have been a breeding ground for poverty, crime and homelessness, but God has been using Selma’s citizens to make a difference.
You can hear the squeak of the rocking chair as the wispy, gray curls fall softly across her forehead from the breeze on her front porch. The wrinkles around her mouth still form the words, “Lord, don’t forget Selma.” She represents only one member from generations who have prayed this prayer.
Determined to Bring Change
Poverty, crime and discouragement have taken a toll on the city. Sons in prison and grandchildren attending broken down schools have brought a lack of hope. People still remember the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Montgomery, Alabama years before, and for decades, more people have crossed that bridge to escape poverty than have returned. Many churches, ministries and individuals have worked hard to make a difference in Selma, but the need is still great. And still the people whisper, “Lord, don’t forget Selma.”
Judge Robert Armstrong has watched the decline as well.
This afternoon the gavel drops for the last time for the day, and the judge sheds his long, black robe as he runs across the street to a meeting in an old two-story, brick house that’s being renovated. A young woman passes him as she hurries out the door with an armful of pictures to show her clients, and the hum of a drill upstairs is evidence of an intern making progress on yet another office. The judge reaches for the door, and the old doorknob falls off in his hand as he rushes in the room, a small mishap hardly noticed as he places it on the desk.
Much of Selma is broken like that old doorknob, but Judge Armstrong is determined to be someone God uses to change that. Buildings in disrepair and a struggling economy have been a breeding ground for addiction, poverty, crime and homelessness. A mindset of tolerance has been the norm, but his eyes are set on changing the lives in Selma from struggling to thriving.
The meeting begins with asking God, “What’s next?”
They’ve discovered a pattern as they’ve followed God. They see a need, go after it and learn as they go while watching for the fruit of their labor.
Judge Armstrong says,“Our plan is like three circles intertwined: Blue Jean, Arsenal Place Accelerator and the Children’s Policy Council.” The judge is quick to explain what this means.
A Place to Be
About ten years ago, Judge Armstrong and a group of men from the local Presbyterian Church realized their numbers were dwindling and asked the question why. They saw there were many who didn’t feel they fit in to the traditional church setting. The homeless, those in poverty and men and women with addictions didn’t feel comfortable; their clothes were different, they felt shamed by their addictions, and their lives showed the wear and tear of streets. They needed a place where they felt loved and accepted; they needed to hear how much Jesus loved them just the way they were. And so Blue Jean Church was created in the basement of the Presbyterian Church. The name “Blue Jean” encouraged everyone to come as they were and experience the love and power of Jesus.
They met early in the morning so people from any church could come and still have time to go to their own churches. And those in poverty started coming. Soon, those with addictions and mental illnesses showed up, and they found themselves sitting next to doctors, executives, housewives and the Judge. There was no offering basket passed; there was no expectation to give. Blue Jean was a place to be loved.
After several years, Blue Jean outgrew the fellowship hall, and with the blessing and love of the Presbyterian Church, they moved out on their own.
While that was great news, the people of Selma also needed jobs.
A Place to Share
What if there was a place that provided an incubator for small businesses? A place where basic needs of fax machines, printers and a boardroom could be shared? What if a space could be provided to start-up businesses that couldn’t otherwise succeed on their own?
Arsenal Place Accelerator was born and found itself in a building across the street from the courthouse. A start-up business called Meghan Stewart Photography rented a space for a small fee along with Gmomma’s Cookies and other small start-ups. Business executives in town stepped up to help with marketing strategies and good business practices. Soon, mentors from nearby colleges were offering their insight. Around the corner, another building was renovated, which provided space to start Revival Coffee Company.
Over time, Gmomma’s Cookies became a stable business and moved out on its own, and that allowed room for another small business to begin.
Still, the needs of the community were overwhelming.
A Place for the Children
One of Judge Armstrong’s responsibilities as the Juvenile Judge for Dallas County is to find programs that are a good fit for those who come through the Children’s Policy Council. Many children have been taken out of the mainstream school system because of behavioral problems, and some end up before Judge Armstrong where he orders them to Hope Academy, which was started in partnership with Selma City Schools, the District Court and the Children’s Policy Council.
Here they are given an opportunity to learn sports, art, and music—even gardening—along with their academics, professional therapy and mentoring. Hope Academy students recently painted clothing that will be sold at a community venue. Their teachers are taking this opportunity to teach them entrepreneurial skills as well.
The school had been secured with bars and barbed wire, which Judge Armstrong removed so students could learn in a more beautiful environment. He was told people would just break out the windows, but the Judge said, “Then we will replace them.” So far, no broken windows.
Blue Jean has been the catalyst for so much change in Selma. The members look to Isaiah 61 to lead them and believe in the power and love of Jesus to help them bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. They continue to seek out ways to help those in need, and their leadership and responsibilities overlap to get things done.
As Judge Armstrong and others watch their vision unfold, they are reaching much farther than this generation. As teenagers are watching the bonds being made between people at Blue Jean despite their differences, they are learning that every human being is valuable. The children of the small business owners starting in Arsenal Place Accelerator are seeing what success looks like alongside their parents. And those coming through the judicial system are learning life skills that will be passed along generation after generation.
Their work is far from done, but their vision is renewed daily as they watch revival come to their town.
God has made it obvious—He has truly not forgotten Selma.
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