Cultivating Hope

For twenty-eight years, alumnus Austin Ford has led a ministry of social change in downtown Atlanta

By Allison O. Adams

At first glance, the gardens surrounding Emmaus House look out of place. The lush lawns, colorful flower beds, winding pathways, and quaint benches seem to belong in an English courtyard, not in one of Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods. But Emmaus House and its gardens couldn't be more at home in the Summerhill community, near the enormous skeleton of what will soon be the stadium for the 1996 Olympic Games. The house's director and gardener is the Reverend Austin Ford, a 1950 Emory College alumnus and 1994 Emory Medal winner. In 1967, Ford founded Emmaus House, an Episcopal Church mission committed to civil rights and working with Atlanta's poor. He and his Summerhill neighbors have cultivated the grounds of the facility in much the same way they have cultivated their ministry--with constant labor, cooperation, compassion, and unflagging optimism.

They have raised a thriving crop of community programs in the cluster of five buildings that constitute Emmaus House on the corner of Capitol and Haygood avenues. The mission offers counseling and health-care services, elder day care, a pre-school, summer activities for schoolchildren, Sunday morning chapel services, community meeting space, a once-a-month shuttle bus to Reidsville State Penitentiary for friends and family members of inmates, and civil and poverty rights advocacy. An after-school study hall gives poor children the kind of support and encouragement that more privileged children regularly receive--hot meals, tutoring, counseling, art and music lessons, and recreation. "What we are is traditionally called a settlement house," Ford says. "It's the idea of people settling in a community, living there as neighbors with resources."

The heart of Emmaus House is a sprawling, two-story home, circa 1890; its doors are painted bright red "for the holy spirit," Ford explains. A genteel man with an eye for beauty and elegance, the Decatur native lives in a small, tidy, top-floor apartment filled with antiques, leather-bound books, and art pottery. But behind the priest's refined manners and tastes is a tireless persistence when it comes to issues of social justice.

Ford's commitment to civil rights began two years after he graduated from Emory with a bachelor's degree in English and Greek. In the summer of 1952, before his last year at the divinity school of The University of the South, the school's trustees voted to reject the first African-American applicant to the seminary. In the ensuing chaos, nine faculty members and half the students left, and many of those who remained, including Ford, were stirred to protest.

"We were all in a way radicalized and motivated to do something about a segregated society," Ford says. "I think those of us who felt it was wrong and worked to change that decision never looked back." The school eventually reversed its ruling, but the incident indelibly marked Ford. As an assistant rector at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta from 1953 to 1955, then as the first rector of St. Bartholomew's on Lavista Road until 1967, he urged the Church and his congregations toward civil rights activism.

"I felt very strongly that the Church ought to be doing this work," he says of his efforts to take parishioners to protest marches, start inner-city daycare centers, and sponsor a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chapter at St. Bartholomew's. His civil rights activism and his anti-Vietnam War stance sometimes elicited the ire of politicians, Episcopal Church leaders, and parishioners. But as the first priest at St. Bartholomew's, he had the opportunity to establish the character of the parish from the beginning. "Because I was so enraged and inflamed and adamant about civil rights, people who couldn't take that just didn't come back," he says.

Ford chuckles when he recounts the story of the birth of Emmaus House. As he worked to combine his activism with the usual duties of a parish priest, "The bishop called me in one day. . . . He said, `Since you're the one who's so interested in this, why don't you just go and do it?' " With the support of the Atlanta diocese of the Episcopal Church, Ford left St. Bartholomew's in search of a home for the new urban mission. It turned out to be a ramshackle, two-dollar-a-night rooming house with a "for sale" sign out front. Accompanied by a Mennonite seminary student and two Roman Catholic nuns, he moved in.

"Almost immediately, children started coming," Ford recalls. "They would just [appear at the door] and say, Can I come in?" Their parents soon followed, and they gradually let him know about their needs. At that time in Atlanta, separate sets of rules governed welfare programs for blacks and whites, public housing and schools were segregated, and the schools that were predominantly African-American were overcrowded and underfunded, lacking essentials like chalkboards and textbooks. There were no food stamps or infant nutrition programs, and school lunches were inadequate. "You saw little children with distended bellies, old women who were just bags of bones," Ford says. "Groups of us would go and meet with agencies. Sometimes we would be arrested, sometimes we got promises, and sometimes we got results."

Results did not come easy. "When you went to the welfare department [to find out how grant amounts were calculated], the caseworkers would say, Well, that's just none of your business," Ford says. "They didn't have to tell you what the rules and regulations were." In 1972, he led a group of his neighbors to the Fulton County Welfare Office, where one woman staged an epileptic seizure. During the uproar, Ford slipped into an office, picked up a copy of the regulations, and left. Armed with that information, Emmaus House soon won a lawsuit that gave welfare recipients the right to a hearing before the state reduced their grants.

When another court order that year mandated that Atlanta provide free transportation for any African-American child who wanted to attend a majority white school, Ford went door-to-door in the Summerhill neighborhood, encouraging families to send their children to Northside schools. By that fall, several hundred children were enrolled in the program. Ford also helped organize groups that took action to integrate the city's public housing projects, improve living conditions, and begin nutrition programs. He raised what he calls "an army of suburban women" to pick up government surplus food from a site outside the city and deliver it to families near Emmaus House.

In fact, Emmaus House represents a longstanding bridge between Atlanta's middle-class, predominantly white Northside and its poor, mostly black Southside. During Sunday services at the chapel, Ford and a congregation of black and white parishioners comfortably blend high Episcopal church liturgy and traditional African-American songs such as "The Gospel Train is Coming" and "This Little Light of Mine." Nancy Beishline, a member of the Emmaus House parish since its earliest days, comes each Sunday from her home in Dunwoody. She has been an Emmaus House volunteer, a civil rights activist, and a Sunday school teacher. "I think it's really what the Church is all about," she says. "It ministers to everybody."

"That's traditionally the way the old neighborhood worked," adds Columbus Ward, who grew up on Washington Street, two blocks from Emmaus House. "Everybody looked out for each other." His first memory of Ford is seeing the priest bicycle to his family's house in 1967 to introduce himself to Ward's parents. Then thirteen, Ward signed up for Emmaus House's activities for teenagers and stayed involved throughout high school. Today, he is the mission's staff director, a post he has held since 1988. "Father Ford and other people here have had a big impact on my life . . . ," he says. "You never find people who work in places like this and actually make them their home. And I think that's what makes [Emmaus House] different. It's his life, his neighborhood, his home. He's not just coming in eight-to-five."

Under Ford's guidance, Emmaus House has evolved into an essential support structure for its community. The Poverty Rights Office is staffed by two paid employees and a host of volunteers who advise the poor of their rights and help them receive available services. In 1994, the office helped fifty-seven people receive Social Security benefits previously denied them in spite of their eligibility. Currently, it is helping thirteen men with AIDS find places to live and learn how to cope with their disease. But Ford is quick to dismiss the notion that he and his staff are solely responsible for the mission's success, pointing out that the impetus for its programs comes from the community. "People have lived around here and coped, kept a good attitude and kept themselves going in the midst of things that you possibly couldn't have survived yourself," he says. "It's very inspiring."

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