Four years ago the grace of Christ commandeered the lives of Rustin and Stacy Sweeney and propelled their family to a place where some in the church might say they shouldn’t have gone, the “other side of the tracks.”
“We were compelled by the love of Jesus,” explains Rustin, “to flesh out what it means to be true followers of Jesus as we moved from one of the more prestigious areas of Atlanta to one of the more economically challenged areas.” In their choice to become downwardly mobile they simply wanted to follow the example of Jesus, who didn’t commute, but relocated.
“These zip codes have the highest rates of addiction, crime, child abuse, abandoned houses, and displaced peoples,” Rustin says. “These are areas marked by economic disparity, unethical practices, and unconcern.”
What would happen when they followed Jesus to a place where distinctions of race, socioeconomics, and cultural identity are firmly embedded? Among other things, their experience has shown the Sweeneys a deep need for their own souls to be filled with the Spirit of Christ.
“Our pasts certainly aren’t without blemish,” says Rustin. “If you had told me 10 years ago that we would be doing what we do for Christ, I would have laughed you out of the room.”
Recognizing that their story is rooted in Christ Jesus, the Sweeneys hope the communication of their faith will effectively enable others to move outside their comfort zone—resembling the early Acts church—and devote their lives to loving and blessing their neighbors. What follows is an interview with young adult editor Kimberly Luste Maran, detailing their lives’ trajectory . . . and how their “garden” has helped grow them and their community.
Rustin, you and Stacy are clearly a team. Take me back to when you met, and where your passion for serving God first took root.
Stacy and I met by accident! I had stopped to meet a friend for lunch on the way to a medical bookstore. He suggested a different bookstore. That’s where we met—and seven months later we had a judge come up to my apartment and marry us.
On one of our first dates I had Steps to Christ, one of Stacy’s favorite books, in the car. She had come across the copy with Jesus knocking on the United Nations headquarters in the library of the treatment facility she had been in.
We started talking about the Sabbath and stuff, and Stacy just kind of nodded her head and was like “That’s right.” Her faith has always surprised me compared to all the baggage that I tend to carry.
My first experience with Christianity was when I was given a scholarship for fast-pitch softball to a Baptist college in Tennessee. At one of my games I collapsed to the ground, paralyzed from the neck down. Shortly after, at age 16, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. . . . While at college I finished my master’s in nursing and worked in Knoxville as an R.N. for 10 years.
When we first met, Rusty, who grew up in the Adventist Church, told me that God loves me more than he loves me—and something about that changed my entire view of God. It has been a big faith-building adventure and experience in the things of God; it helps to know that Rusty is sincerely trying to follow Christ and to lead our family into an experience with Jesus—where we are used by Him to be a blessing to others.
So how did you go from what many might call a “normal” life to one of Atlanta’s economically challenged neighborhoods?
Stacy and I had been married for a couple years and were fully connected to a church. We were doing spiritual things—going to church on Sabbath, teaching Sabbath school, spending time with the young adults, participating in potlucks, talking about the Bible, planning a seminary stint. But even with all the church stuff, if you had placed our lives next to the life of Jesus you would’ve clearly seen that they looked nothing alike.
So Thankful: Some of the community members who attended a recent Thanksgiving dinner.
Stacy and I started haphazardly praying for our blended family to receive new eyes and new experiences that would reflect the prayer in Revelation 3:18.
As we prayed, we started getting a better understanding of what we were supposed to do, and in the beginning of 2007 we went through the Organic Greenhouse training that Bill and Jan Levin conducted for the Georgia-
Cumberland Conference [GCC]. (Bill is the GCC director of global evangelism and church planting.)
After about a year of working closely with our family the Levins asked if we would be willing to start an initiative of planting house churches in apartment buildings, specifically to reach the large number of Caucasian urban apartment dwellers, very similar to where we were living at the time.
I really have to praise God for what happened, though, because sometime between their asking us to start this ministry and the time we actually signed the papers with the GCC, God led us into this hard left turn to start searching out apartments that were nothing like us.
The leadership of the GCC continued to support us, as they could see that God was working. The conference supported us with a stipend for two years. We joined a wonderful team called Good News Atlanta, which really had tremendous potential to spread the gospel and to train others how to be involved in their communities in such a way as to have long-term impact.
That was a pretty big leap of faith.
First, I want to say that a big deal shouldn’t be made of it—plenty of families have been living in our area their entire lives, and no one has ever come up to them, patted their backs, and said “good job”—perhaps if we did, it would provide an opportunity to love more people for Christ.
Second, it’s difficult to describe how we got where we are because it was such a God thing. We are just an ordinary family, there’s nothing special about us, but we have issues. We don’t deserve to be where we are.
Stacy and I both come from dysfunctional families that suffered from addiction and alcoholism, and until we accepted help for our own addictions and “isms” we had only three choices in life: jails, institutions, or death.
Stacy has had an auto-immune disease since the age of 16, and I’ve battled with mental disease since around the same age. We have a blended family with four boys, one of which we never get to see. At one point in Stacy’s life she was lying on a sidewalk with someone sticking a shotgun in her face. There was a point in my life where, even clean and sober, I was chasing people in cars and threatening them. We are the kind of people that don’t get invited to many upstanding places.
Making an Impact: Rebecca Turk, an IMPACT Atlanta 2010 delegate, pulls weeds in the community garden and chats with a 9-year-old boy, who is a neighbor of Rustin and Stacy Sweeney's.
When I was in academy in 1991, I was [expelled]. I was more likely to desecrate a church than speak at one. But 16 years later Stacy and I were standing in the Georgia-Cumberland Conference on my birthday, signing papers to start a new ministry for the church. God started it all by redeeming our lives. It cannot be explained how people like us end up in a place like this without some serious rearrangement of our lives through the power of Jesus.
How do you bring your experiences—and your faith—to your ministry and into your community?
God has called on all believers to weave into our lives of faith a genuine concern for the least of these. When I discovered this, I searched the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy to see if it was true (see Signs of the Times
, Feb. 3, 1890, and Matt. 25:40). I was absolutely floored by my findings. Caught up in conversations about what people should eat or wear, we have totally failed to notice that people are starving, naked, and hurting just down the street.
In Testimonies for the Church
Ellen White said, “It is working together with Christ that is true worship” (vol. 2, p. 24). Helping the needy, clothing the naked, bringing the homeless into our house . . . that’s genuine. And so her statement became what we could call a mission statement.
Give me a few examples of this in action.
Everything we do is with an eye to bless our neighbors and community. If I’m taking our boys rock climbing, then I’m taking the neighborhood kids. If we’re tutoring the boys in math, then we’re tutoring kids from the neighborhood. If I pray at my meals and we’ve got people over, they pray too.
I have a young people’s group called 5:55 that started because I caught a bunch of the neighborhood kids smoking. Sometimes I run a young men’s group called Safe House, which started from a trip I took eight young men on to see Cirque du Soleil. We take camping trips, rock climbing trips, air shows, carriage rides, and visits to the country. This past summer I was the pool monitor for our apartments—that’s 13 hours a week that I’m earning the right to influence. This September Stacy handed out cucumbers for a few days and taught neighbor women out in the gazebo how to make bruschetta . . . There are literally thousands of interactions we have had with the people in our neighborhood, all because we are willing to be intentional with our time and hang out.
The first week we were in our new apartment our car was stolen, and the night God brought it back we used the incident as a chance to invite people for a spaghetti dinner. During lunch one woman broke down and started crying. At that meal God solidified our role by showing us that if we would just be “with” others, He would bring about the conversation He desired. And He did, because at the end of that conversation she said, “I’ve always wanted someone to ask me to follow Jesus.”
Family Time: Rustin and Stacy spend some quality time with three of their boys at a park.
Our goal as a ministry and family is to hold a monthly event for all the people in our community—simple things such as a watermelon and peaches party, Thanksgiving dinner, roller skating and pizza, a Christmas party (we call it Mas Christ), waffles and fresh-squeezed orange juice breakfast—anything that enables us to have more face time with people.
Sunday morning, hours before Rustin and I flew to Australia a few weeks ago, a woman called. Homeless, she was asking if we knew anywhere she could stay. Months before this phone call Rustin was taking Marta [an Atlanta commuter train] back from the courthouse downtown. While he was waiting for the train this woman recognized Rustin. She was a former classmate from 22 years ago, and recovering from substance abuse and mental illness. Before she left, he quickly offered her his business card, telling her to call if she needed anything.
We thought we’d never hear from her, and yet just hours before our flight she called. On the way to drop the kids off with their grandmother we discussed the situation, our fears, our excuses (and we had many good ones), but we reached the same conclusion: we have only one Great Commission, to be a blessing. We asked her to stay at our apartment while we were gone. She was delighted and, thanks to God, she arrived just in time for us to walk out of the house and hand her a key. So while we were teaching about love and concern for the least of these in Australia, our new housemate was discovering a God who loved and cared for her in Atlanta.
To me this is what our home is about, sharing our lives so someone else might see God.
So you have the support, it seems, from the community. In what other ways do you receive support?
We have been blessed with the resource of time. (As a personal trainer, I’m able to make my own hours.) Monetarily, the first two years we received a stipend from the conference, but after taxes we found it wasn’t a very good use of the money. Most of our operating support comes from my clients—we give our time, and they help us financially when we hold bigger events, such as Mas Christ or our Thanksgiving dinner. I have clients that said they would never support a Christian organization no matter what, but they donate every year. It’s interesting—God didn’t remove me from the wealthy area of town; I still work there about 20 hours a week. There is something about our story that speaks to my clients about real Christianity.
I have to ask, since it is one of the first things you started in the community as a way to bring people together. What is your favorite thing about the community garden?
I don’t like gardening. It’s not in my DNA, and I have no prior gardening experience, so it is a real struggle for me. I hate the hot Atlanta summers, the pests, the lack of knowledge I have, but God has told us to start gardens, so we started a community garden. It took me a year just to clean up all the trash and junk back there and then a couple more years to get decent soil. I don’t like it, but I do it because I know that Jesus is trying to provide for our people and that He is teaching me valuable lessons.
The best thing about that garden is the connections God has developed through it. We pay a small amount to a friend named Harvest, who helps me with upkeep. As we have gotten to know Harvest’s family and to share the heart of God with them, they have been slowly transforming. As we have continued to try to be a blessing to this beautiful family, Harvest has been such a blessing to me. Without fail he helps me maintain the garden and never asks anything in return.
The greatest thing I have learned is how hard it is for God to work in the garden of my heart, how often pests, disease, and weeds crop up and how difficult it must be for Him to have to go over the same soil over and over. I have a real respect for the amount of work it takes for His Spirit to take a person like me and transform my heart, but I also have a real respect for the lesson that I’m learning about how that heart is transformed. It takes working together with Christ; nothing can happen in that garden or in our communities if we are not actively seeking ways to plant. If I stay in the house one summer, nothing grows. If I’m “detached from the soil of community,” how can I expect people to come to Christ?
A few of the words the Sweeneys live by
• Genesis 12 and 22
• Isaiah 58
• 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
• Ephesians 3
• Revelation 3:18
• “Doing for Christ,” Testimonies for the Church
, vol. 2, pp. 24-37
Kimberly Luste Maran is young adult editor for the
Adventist Review. This article was published October 13, 2011.