Rebuilding Ruins

Sarah Arthur

I sit with my elderly neighbor on her front porch in Old East Durham, North Carolina.

“How long have you lived here, Ms. Emmy?” I ask.

She shrugs and smiles. “A long, long time.”

Jubilee's first projectWe pause to watch a boom-car cruise the block, windows rattling. At one time, this neighborhood was a beautiful place. Tall trees still line the streets. But these days a third of the buildings are boarded up or condemned, haunted by the homeless or by memories of a better time. Crime is high. I have chosen to live here, out of obedience to Christ’s call; but many of my neighbors have no choice.

Ms. Emmy speaks of the decades when the neighborhood was safe and she could sleep with her windows open. Then she talks about the years when homeowners moved away, when drug lords and prostitutes took over the empty houses and she’d find stolen cars parked in her driveway.

Then things got better as people started looking out for one another again.

“When did things start changing, Ms. Emmy?” I ask.

preparing the insideShe nods in the direction of our house and a few others. “When they started to fix up these houses,” she says. “When folk began living here again.”

The media would like us to think that the only way to restore stability to neighborhoods is first to clean them up and to eliminate crime. Then people will move back. The reality is that neighborhoods change when people take the risk to return, to restore what seems hopeless, and to befriend folks who don’t look like them.

Repairing the Breach

My housemates and I live across the street from Ms. Emmy, in a multi-family Christian household called Isaiah House. We chose to live here because we felt that God wanted to challenge our comfortable assumptions and habits. God wanted us to find Jesus in the city. We practice hospitality by opening our house to women and children in need of a temporary home.

My housemates and a nearby congregation have started a nonprofit ministry called Jubilee Restoration Project. Our vision is to rejuvenate a few square blocks in Durham by renovating the old homes and selling them to first-time home­buyers. We plan to buy empty lots as well and to turn them into parks or gardens.

Restoration is not about gentrification, which renovates homes for upper-income buyers and forces the locals to move. It’s about dignity and stability for the people who already live there. It’s about creating safe places for children to play. It’s about Ms. Emmy sleeping with her windows open again.

Restorer of Streets

The prophet Isaiah spoke to a ruined and exiled people. He had a vision of God’s people repenting of their sins, reaching out to the poor, offering light in dark places and relief in deserted places. He said,

 makeover nearly complete    Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
     you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
     you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
     the restorer of streets to live in.
          Isaiah 58:12 (NRSV)

In our broken world, I can’t think of a title I’d rather have than “repairer” or “restorer.” The God we serve repairs and restores; that’s the kind of people we are called to be.



Have you grown up in a neighborhood you can’t wait to leave? Have you been taught to fear and distrust the inner city or the “poor” side of town? How would your thinking change if you viewed these neighborhoods through the eyes of Isaiah, if you believed that God is already at work and wants you to be a part of the restoration? This week, look for signs of restoration in the forgotten neighborhoods of your community. Pray about what you and your church might do to be part of Isaiah’s vision.

Sarah Arthur is the author of numerous youth resources, including The One Year Daily Grind, a blog-style, yearlong devotional for young adults.

—from devozine (July/August 2009). Copyright © 2009 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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