By Trey Lyon
I recall my college New Testament professor explaining the words of John 4, “now Jesus had to go through Samaria,” as the author’s way of saying that Jesus went there on purpose, and that going through Samaria “is like driving through the bad part of town.”
The first image that popped into my head was the route our church took on that old Blue Bird bus when we went to Atlanta Braves games.
I grew up in south Cobb County, and our church in the quiet suburbs regularly drove down Bankhead Highway to get to what was then Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. We did it every summer, sometimes two or three times, with the youth group, kids’ day camp and the “Young at Heart” seniors.
The seniors would point out the old church building, right near the heart of the city, now an African-American congregation with twin housing projects. “Make sure your windows are closed,” our ministers and deacons would tell us.
It was the 1980s and early 1990s. As swiftly as churches like ours had exited to the suburbs, crime, poverty and the plague of crack cocaine had swept into the streets of Bankhead, creating a community forever immortalized in hip-hop lyrics as tough enough to merit serious street cred.
We streamed out of our buses, advised by ministers not to make eye contact with or engage the homeless men panhandling outside. Inevitably a compassionate young girl would defy our ecclesiastical order and drop some change in a dirty Styrofoam cup. When the game was over, we went back the long way around, because you didn’t go back through Samaria, or Bankhead, at night.
Some 25 years later, the news has broken that the Braves are moving to a stadium and location in north Cobb County, a site that would be only about 15 minutes from my old church — that is if that church hadn’t moved yet again when neighborhood demographics changed and sold the building to a thriving AME Zion congregation.
The words of that old college professor never really left me, and perhaps that is why I now find myself regularly taking children home from our weekly after-school program in the shadow of a stadium now destined for destruction.
The current Braves stadium, Turner Field, is a wonderful ballpark — a place where at the crack of a bat many Baptist ministers I know have shown more evidence of being filled with the Holy Ghost then they ever have in church.
Poverty surrounds the land that has been home to the Braves — hallowed to some and reviled by others. My father and mother-in-law were there on the muggy night in April 1974 when Hank Aaron did the impossible and made “715” an immortal number in sports.
That stadium was torn down to make way for the 1996 Olympics, a move which led to the destruction of multiple homes and housing projects, displacing hundreds of people. In the name of progress and cleaning up the city, mixed-use facilities were constructed and old projects rebuilt.
One complex I drive into every week was visited by the head of HUD under the Clinton administration, who praised Atlanta as a model for other cities struggling with affordable housing.
The Olympics came and went, and so too, now, the Braves. The jobs there, though seasonal, were the best many in the neighborhood could find. The reaction throughout the city has been mixed.
Fingers have been pointed at the mayor, the city, the Braves organization, the county and public transit. That great barometer of emotion, my Facebook news feed, has blown up with the opinions of others who know and love the city as I do.
I paused after reading a comment where a friend who was excited that the new stadium would be closer to where he lives observed, “I guess the toothless wonder who hits me up for change will try to find me in Cobb County.”
Beyond the cruelty of that statement, I couldn’t help thinking that the person it referenced has a name. The families — children, men and women who live in and around a stadium that will now be dark 365 days a year instead of 246 — all have names.
Another friend wrote of his own struggle with privilege and prejudice: “The ways of evil, to my thinking, always work to dehumanize and strip the sacred from life. These words did just that in my mind and heart. Then I thought about how the gospel does its work by humanizing and naming. Jesus brought life and humanity back to those who had been reduced to numbers or groups by the world. “
Another friend says that it is not the Braves’ job to develop a community. Their job is to do business as a baseball club. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s right. It is not up to baseball teams to bring life and humanity to the world.
If we are to carry on the life and work of Jesus, then it is our sacred task to do so. Simply put, Jesus would not say “those people” unless he were telling us “they are my people.”
Of course, abandoned sports parks and urban centers are not the only Samarias in the world. Mother Teresa famously said to those who came to work with her in Calcutta “Go! Find your own Calcutta.”
My wizened professor was on to something. Our own Calcutta or Samaria may be found in the places and people we choose to avoid. “Those people,” too, have names, and it is our job to learn them.
Sports teams don’t have to love their neighbor. But as people who follow Jesus, we do — and there is no off-season.