The car that drove community
After spending the first twenty-five years of my life being driven around by my parents, walking to school, living on campus during college, and learning the intricacies of public transportation in Ghana and New York City, moving to Atlanta this past May was a shock.
Everyone warned me: When you move to Atlanta, you’ll need a car.
Though I paid little heed to these warnings, my parents did not, and gave me a back-to-grad-school gift of the old family car, on loan to me for the three years of my program.
The advice echoed: When you move to Atlanta, you’ll need a car.
I was grateful for a means of travel, but the presence of so many cars generally and of me in the driver’s seat particularly grated on my nerves. I resented feeling forced to join the ranks of sedentary drivers polluting the air and clogging the streets. Tucked into our solitary driver’s seats, my fellow drivers and I were unencumbered by scheduled subway maintenance and insulated from walking in the midday heat, but at what cost? I had lived for the prior two years in an intentional Christian community that emphasized simplicity, and having a car—driving where I wanted, when I wanted—didn’t seem to fit with that paradigm.
I was wary of how quickly driving could become a means to gratify my own self-centeredness.
Fittingly, my mom and I drove the 15 hours from my parents’ home in Wisconsin to Atlanta.
Until that point, I’d been under the wrong impression (you could say I made a hasty assumption) that I could stay with a family friend throughout my education. So when I received word during the drive that this was no longer an option, I had no plan B.
Yet in His divine providence, God opened another door. When my plan failed, God showed me that His vision had always been bigger.
My mom had done some research into housing opportunities in Atlanta and providentially stumbled upon a place called Villa International. When I sent the staff at Villa a harried email from a rest stop to ask if I could move in two days later, I had no concept of the grace that God was showing me.
I only later realized that He was setting the stage for me to use the car for something other than to spending it on my own selfish pleasures (James 4:3).
Villa International was founded in 1967 by a coalition of seven Christian denominations to welcome guests from across the world who were coming to Atlanta for short-term work and study, often at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or at Emory University. During my three months there, I had roommates from Mongolia, Turkey, and Mozambique, watched the Olympic Opening Ceremonies with friends from nearly twenty countries, and shared in Bible study with people from Christian countries and formerly closed countries alike.
The guest house itself has over 30 private and shared bedrooms, in addition a large communal living room, an open dining room, a small chapel, and two industrially-equipped kitchens for guests to use. The physical structure of the space is conducive to living life alongside each other, going about the daily rhythms of life alongside other people who are created in God’s image.
When I imagine community as it looked when the early Church was growing early in the book of Acts, I imagine that Villa is the closest thing I have ever experienced to that vision made manifest on Earth.
My first evening at Villa, my roommate came to our room and told me, “Come and eat!” She had prepared dinner for us both—a simple gesture of friendship and hospitality that I experienced over and over and over from her and many others in that place. And I will probably never fully understand how she evoked so much flavor from plain vegetables and homemade flour noodles with just a little salt and vegetable oil.
As I became rooted at Villa, God began to open my heart to the undeserved gift he had given me, one I was so resentful toward: the car.
I began to understand that he had given the car to me not as its master, but as its steward. He had placed me in the midst of people living far from home, with all sorts of goals, responsibilities, and needs—with places to go related to each. He had then given me the means to make His love tangible.
I’ve driven friends from Villa an hour each way to a picnic, I’ve been the designated driver for so many Sunday morning church services and Saturday evening social gatherings, and I’ve pushed aside designated study time to drive friends to the grocery store. I’ve nearly missed class to drop a friend off at work. And I’ve picked up friends walking alongside the road to bring them home improbably—divinely—often.
But it’s not about doing good things. Any halfway decent person would have done them too. And it’s not about giving up on the other things God has called me to—studenthood primary among them in this season—in order to drive a carpool.
No—God’s vision is always bigger. From the car, I had a front seat to what God was doing. He was redeeming a gift and responsibility I had so reluctantly accepted and even scorned. And He was providing for His children walking home from the grocery store. Maybe having a car for my own personal use is not the epitome of simplicity, but what a powerful tool in God’s service.
The advice I had so easily brushed off took on a fuller meaning: When I moved to Atlanta, we needed a car.
What I resented, the God who brings beauty from ashes renewed. Now that is a redemptive story I am humbled to join.
—Jessica Haley is pursuing a nursing degree at Emory University in hopes of becoming a midwife. She expects to earn her BSN in 2017 and her MSN in 2019. Jessica obtained her degree in Anthropology from Princeton University in 2014.