Cook: The church of the lawn-mowing servants

Published 9 July 2018

Contact Chris Robinson at crobp52@gmail.com.

WALKER COUNTY, Ga. — Soon after Dianne Whitlow lost her husband, she began to lose her yard.

Trees and limbs fell during storms and tornadoes. The grass grew and grew. And the weeds. And poison ivy. Trash found its way into her yard. Her deck collapsed. Over time, the small Rossville farm became too much for the 68-year-old Whitlow to manage on her own.

In an effort to clean up the town, Rossville, Georgia, officials told Whitlow — and others, too — that unkempt, overgrown yards would result in fines. Fines, around $100, could double and triple if gone unpaid.

What was the widow Whitlow to do?

Thankfully, while citing her with one hand, officials made an obliging phone call with the other.

One day last year, good news arrived.

Climbing out of vans and dented pickups, a loving army of eager middle schoolers and compassionate adults brought lawn mowers, string trimmers, machetes, wheelbarrows.

In a moving liturgy of sweat labor, these middle schoolers and adults did what Whitlow couldn't; they pressured-washed, mowed, hauled, cut, chopped and cleaned.

They called it church. (More on that in a moment.)

"They mean everything to me, honey," Whitlow said. "All them kids treated me like I was their real Granny. They were giving me hugs and sugar and working like little Trojans. The men were as respectful and good to me as they could be."

Each week in Chattanooga or North Georgia, something like this happens.

A widow or AIDS patient or disabled veteran or down-on-her-luck mother peers out the window and sees a van and a dented Ford appear, and whatever yard trouble there was — overgrown brush, debris, fallen trees — is gone by day's end.

It's called Project 52.

One project a week, each week of the year.

In a time when the power of the American church is in question, when neighbor tends to mistrust neighbor, the P52 story serves as an antidote.

It is democracy with chainsaws.

It is church with lawn mowers.

"Each person's lawn is a sanctuary," said P52's founder, Dr. Chris Robinson.

In 2011, Robinson, a 57-year-old ordained Presbyterian minister, left the church in order to find it. No longer believing that churchgoing was solely defined by Saturday evening or Sunday morning attendance, Robinson discovered worship within acts of service.

A going out into the world.

Church without borders.

His offering plate became yard work for the least of these.

"This is church," he said. "This is an act of worship."

He began partnering with city officials, who'd pass him the names of folks in code violation; he's completed nearly 450 projects over the years alongside a network of steady, hearty volunteers.

Son servants.

Covenant College students. (Robinson is a sociology professor there.)

Hope Fellowship in Chickamauga, Georgia.

St. Elmo Presbyterian.

Highlands Presbyterian in LaFayette, Georgia.

"And officials in Walker County," he said. "Absolutely fantastic."

Last year, for example, P52 used dumpster rentals to haul away more than 58 tons of trash and debris for 25 families.

"It's our dumpster ministry," Robinson said.

Two weeks ago, P52 was back at Whitlow's yard, working again, and in a nearby trailer park, where overgrowth choked what seemed like every third or fourth yard.

Like a triangle, three parts were being healed:

Practical, physical needs were being met.

A humble selfishness cultivated within hearts and minds of volunteers.

Abiding relationships forged; P52 doesn't just walk away once lawns are mowed. Folks are introduced to local pastors and congregations, who build friendships that last beyond yard work.

"There are tangible and intangible things going on here," Robinson noted.

Earlier this week, we celebrated American freedom and independence; I thought back to Robinson and P52.

There is tremendous freedom in the P52 vision. Freedom from insulating selfishness. Freedom from narrowness. Freedom from believing you're all alone.

Quietly and humbly, Robinson and his volunteers model this. I love them for it.

"That's what I love about them, too," Whitlow agreed.

___

Our neighborhood lost a good friend recently.

Dr. Doug Newton, 75, died on Thursday, June 28.

Newton, known near and far for his microvascular plastic surgery and research on brown recluse spider bites, was the witty, welcoming, brilliant king of the neighborhood, the type of man every block needs.

"How you doing?" I'd ask, as he walked by with beloved dog Lucy.

"Hanging in there like a hair in a biscuit," he'd crack.

Just knowing him reminded me of all the rock-bottom good things in life: family, laughter, a quiet garden, devotion to place.

Once again, through Newton and Robinson, an old truth re-emerges:

Love your neighbors and let them love you.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.