Atlanta: Inner-city district gathers many of diverse cultures into 'gospel net'

A gathering of "the good" from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds is taking place in the heart of Atlanta.

The Inner City Atlanta Georgia District includes some 850 members living in five branches. One of these units, Brookhaven, is a Vietnamese branch; another, Chamblee, is Spanish. Both are open to Asians and Hispanics residing in or around the city. The boundaries of the other three branches - Adams Park, East Lake and Perkerson Park - encompass about 1 million people within Atlanta proper.The branches were organized - some as dependent units - in the late 1980s and 1990 as parts of surrounding stakes. In October 1991, they were taken from the stakes and molded into a mission district under the auspices of the Georgia Atlanta Mission. Since then, struggles, strength and growth - both individual and collective - have resulted.

Full-time missionaries have played an important part in the growth and strengthening of the units, serving initially in some of the leadership positions as resident members grew in the gospel and moved into those positions. The missionaries, with their Vietnamese and Spanish language skills, play especially critical roles in teaching and leading

in the Brookhaven and Chamblee branches.

"We have six missionaries who are with the Vietnamese program and four full-time Spanish-speaking missionaries," said Pres. Everett S. Pallin of the Georgia Atlanta Mission. "Couple missionaries serving in the district Resources Center and office couples also work in those branches and give their hearts and souls. We're deeply appreciative for both the Spanish and Hispanic missionaries; they are our liaison with the people. There are such beautiful people in both groups, and in all the units in the inner city. We love them and are thrilled to be able to bring the gospel to them and feel of their spirituality."

Pres. Pallin, in a special evening meeting with 12 missionaries, explained that the formation of the district has been an exciting and inspirational occurrence.

"Historically, there were very few members of the Church within the `inner city' as we call it," he said. "If someone joined the Church, they would often

move to the suburbs. This experience of people leaving the city for the suburbs is not new and has happened in many cities, keeping membership levels low. This concerned the saints here and the Brethren, so missionaries were put into the inner city so those who lived there might have greater exposure to the Church. We've had considerable progress the past year and a half. Property has been purchased for two building sites in the lower part of the city, for the Adams Park, East Lake and Perkerson Park branches. The Adams Park-Perkerson Park building is under construction and should be completed this fall. What a great blessing that's going to be. That building also will be used for the district Resource Center. We also hope to have a building for the East Lake saints within a year.

"On the north end of the city, where [the bulk ofT Asian and Hispanic people reside, the Church has purchased property for a Brook Haven-Chamblee facility. We hope to be building there in the next year or so as well."

Pres. Pallin and other leaders in the district noted that transportation is a significant challenge for many members in the city. Most do not own their own automobiles. The new buildings will be located adjacent to mass transit stations, facilitating travel and meeting attendance for the members.

Another challenge is leadership development, according to district Pres. Daniel P. Diaz. "One of the major challenges we have is to develop the leadership within the district," he explained. "At the beginning, we had mostly called people from the surrounding stakes, who came in for support. We have grown from just a few members several years ago in dependent branches into independent units, now with 850 members. That, to me, is an indication of the potential of the district.

"We are now at a point where we are establishing a solid leadership base. We have followed the counsel of the Brethren regarding calling three of our most experienced priesthood holders to the positions of branch president, elders quorum president and ward mission leader. This has proven to be a great success. We have not been able to fully implement that concept in all of the branches, but we are working toward that. We want to get to the point where it is second nature for members to serve and lead in the Church, which is difficult and new for many of them."

Brother William Tucker and his wife, Sadie, are part of the "leadership base" spoken of by Pres. Diaz. Sister Tucker serves as district Relief Society president. Brother Tucker is second counselor in the East Lake Branch presidency. The two joined the Church in the fall of 1988 after raising nine children.

The Tuckers were active in another denomination for nearly 40 years, and their children are vigorous participants in several religions, including having their own ministries in Germany, Florida and Texas. "We're hoping that they will come into the Church, but we don't push them," Sister Tucker said.

For about two years before the LDS missionaries knocked on Brother and Sister Tucker's door in 1988, they said they "didn't know what was wrong, but something didn't feel right. And then we felt the Spirit when the missionaries came.

"We felt there was more to studying religion than just going and listening to somebody talk. The missionaries being as young as they were and as far away from home as they were got our attention. They asked us to pray ourselves, which was a first. Usually somebody else had done the praying for us. They worked with us for a few months, and we were baptized."

Shortly after their baptisms, the Tuckers jumped right into Church service. Before he received a calling, Brother Tucker could see that a number of members lacked transportation to Sunday meetings. Some were elderly or disabled. He began making the rounds with his van and picking people up, a practice he has continued as callings have come.

"We're trying to show our love for them. If they want to be in Church, we want to make it possible for them to get there," Brother Tucker said.

The couple continues to grow in the gospel and, like others, works to overcome pressures and challenges.

"One thing I have found is that whenever things don't go exactly right, I stop and go back to the scriptures and get back to the basics of the gospel," reflected Sister Tucker.

President James Lynch of the Brookhaven Branch was called from a suburban stake to serve in the Vietnamese unit just over a year ago. District leaders learned he had served as a soldier in Vietnam, and his knowledge of the Vietnamese culture and people was deemed helpful.

He told the Church News that there is a Vietnamese population in the Atlanta area numbering roughly 4,000. Most are here under government-sponsored programs for Amerasian children and the families of South Vietnam military personnel who were political prisoners following the North Vietnamese takeover in 1975.

"Some of these people have stories you wouldn't believe - their experiences since the communist takeover," Pres. Lynch said. "There are a lot of emotional and psychological scars."

Several of the Vietnamese full-time missionaries serving in the branch are refugees to the United States who joined the Church after arriving in America. They have not seen their families for many years.

Pres. Lynch said the 190 or so Vietnamese branch members are very humble, teachable and loving. He and other leaders depend heavily on the missionaries for translation assistance. The missionaries, especially the couples, are huge helps with basic living and cultural adjustments, he added. Meetings are conducted in English and Vietnamese, with translation provided both ways as people teach, speak and sing. There were 43 people baptized into the branch last year, and the number of Melchizedek Priesthood holders went from four to five.

"We're preparing to try and get the first group to the temple shortly," he said. "It's been a marvelous experience. It's a great work here."

President Daryl Blount, branch president of the Adams Park Branch and manager of the district Resource Center, had his own direct sales business prior to being hired by Church Welfare Services. A native of Georgia, he has lived in Atlanta 11 years, earning a graduate degree in business at a local university.

The missionaries knocked on his door in November 1985, just after his wife, Robin, returned home from the hospital with their first child. She invited them back and was baptized in 1986. Pres. Blount's conversion process took a little longer. "She had more vision than I did," he said, smiling.

The Blounts progressed and prepared and were sealed last year in the Atlanta Georgia Temple, the first family from Adams Park to receive those blessings.

He has served as branch president for about six months, and relishes the challenges and blessings associated with his assignment.

Attendance at the branch averages between 70 and 80 people, he noted. There is much diversity economically and culturally. "Though we're small, that provides many opportunities for people to get a chance to serve and develop leadership skills. If we were still part of a ward, it probably wouldn't happen so quickly. There are lots of opportunities for growth and fellowshipping.

"We have a good family atmosphere in the branch. The Spirit is very strong here and testimonies are sincere. It's a challenge making sure people understand gospel principles and become one in heart and purpose, but that's the fun part. If we didn't have challenges, we wouldn't have anything to do."

President Julio C. Castillo of the Chamblee Branch was a successful architect in Venezuela for many years before bringing his family to the United States. His architectural credentials are not accepted in the U.S., but he works hard as a custodian to provide for his family.

The Castillos joined the Church 22 years ago in Venezuela. They came to the United States to be sealed in the Logan (Utah) Temple and take advantage of enhanced educational opportunities. They subsequently elected to stay.

Pres. Castillo said there are nearly 100,000 Hispanics in metropolitan Atlanta. "Most are here because of opportunities for work," he explained. "Many come here and then move on to other places, which makes it difficult to keep track of them in the Church."

He and his wife, Molina Silvestra, are the parents of six children - four in Atlanta, one in Florida and another in Venezuela.

"Our family is very happy to serve in the branch," Pres. Castillo said. "We love all of the members and enjoy the Spanish people."

He said about 75 attend the branch on an average week. Many are recent converts. Efforts are made by missionaries and other members to help them feel comfortable in the new religious and cultural environments. Pres. Castillo said they are succeeding.

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