Saving grace

When Bruce Deel took over The Mission Church, he had orders to shut it down. Today, its City of Refuge is changing the lives of Atlanta’s homeless.

Next week: Susan Pavlin helps immigrant families grow their own food and sell the surplus.

The preacher couldn’t help but notice the woman as she took a seat halfway down the aisle on the left-hand side. Her skirt was short, her cleavage prominent, her bobbed blond hair disheveled. When the benediction ended, all eyes followed as she started down the aisle directly toward him.

Stepping up to him, she spoke.

I’ve been hooking and stripping for 14 years, she said. Can you help me?

The encounter would change the church’s future, the preacher’s life and, indirectly, thousands more lives and counting.

It was the embryonic beginning of what would become the City of Refuge.



The preacher

The Rev. Bruce Deel, now 53, grew up in the fishbowl of a Church of God preacher’s family in the mountains of southwest Virginia. In those days, the old Southern denomination was known as much for its rules prohibiting women from using cosmetics, wearing jewelry and cutting their hair as it was for its spirit-filled worship.

The family moved frequently as Deel’s father changed pulpits. By the time he was 12, Deel had been in 10 schools. But constancy came in the form of values taught at home — honesty, integrity, dignity and respect for others.

Deel’s ambition was to graduate from the University of Virginia and become a child psychologist. The call to the ministry came not in the form of a lightning bolt but as a slow realization that culminated during a youth service in the spring of 1978, his senior year at Albemarle High School. From that night on, he knew he would be a pastor.

Instead of Charlottesville, he packed for Cleveland, Tenn., home of Lee University, founded in 1918 as the Bible Training School by his father’s denomination. Working at a church camp in 1980, he met co-worker Rhonda Ramsey, an East Tennessee State University student who was transferring to Lee. He was captivated by Rhonda’s big brown eyes and fun-loving personality. She was drawn to his self-confidence, which occasionally ran to cockiness.

Rhonda was majoring in accounting, preparing to be an independent businesswoman. Her father, like Deel’s, was a minister, and if she ever married, it surely wouldn’t be to a preacher, she thought. But in 1987, Bruce and Rhonda exchanged vows.

Deel had worked at several churches by 1992 when he was named youth and associate pastor of Pleasantdale Church of God in Doraville, a congregation of about 400.

By then the old denominational rules had relaxed in all but the most conservative congregations. Big churches such as Atlanta’s Mount Paran Church of God had popularized elements of Pentecostal worship and theology. Even a scattering of Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations held exuberant worship services and accepted glossolalia, or speaking in unknown tongues, in what was known as the Charismatic Movement.

The Church of God, now with 7 million members around the world and almost 300 congregations in metro Atlanta and north Georgia, had moved from the margins to the mainstream.

With Deel ensconced in a vibrant church, he and Rhonda settled into their five-bedroom house — two stories with a full basement, a big front porch and lots of shade trees — on two acres of land near Stone Mountain. Rhonda decorated it in bright blues and greens. As preachers’ kids, both Deels had spent their lives in church-owned parsonages with neutral walls and generic furnishings. Rhonda relished having a home they could make their own.

Then, daughter followed daughter until there were four. Rhonda was a stay-at-home mother, but she put her accounting degree to work, keeping a tight watch on the family checkbook. The girls figured out Daddy was an easier touch. They refer to him as Suga’ Pop.

The nickname would surprise those who know Deel only professionally. A self-described task-oriented, highly driven Type A, he’s not known as a man who wastes words or couches the truth. Some characterize him as “intimidating.” Others call him “straightforward” or “direct.”

“The people who get the softer side are his girls and the people on the margins,” says Rhonda.

Concern for others just seemed to come naturally to Deel.

As a youth pastor at previous churches, Deel had arranged mission trips to New York City and cities overseas. From Doraville, he didn’t have to travel far to expose his congregants to urban poverty; he often led efforts to distribute food and clothing through ministries in Atlanta.

Pleasantdale Senior Pastor Darrell Rice, now a bishop in Oklahoma, believed Deel would do great things once he acquired the administrative skills to match his vision. As a mentor, Rice was watching Deel grow into his potential.

That’s where things stood in 1997 when the local bishop summoned Deel and Rice to a meeting about a struggling congregation in Midtown Atlanta.

When it was over, Deel was made temporary pastor of The Mission Church. His assignment: Help the few remaining members find another place to worship, close the church and sell the building.



The congregation

Midtown in the 1960s was in full flower, in the hippie sense of the word. Runaways and dropouts slept on the streets and crowded into small apartments in the neighborhood near “The Strip,” a stretch of Peachtree Street between 10th and 14th streets. The area, where cheap eateries and head shops dominated the retail scene, gained a national reputation as a sort of Southern-fried Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village.

Steve Land, a Church of God pastor studying at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, worried about the many homeless young people who began flocking to the city. He persuaded his family to buy two houses on Piedmont Avenue where he founded an outreach organization called Mission Possible. Others joined him to help feed and shelter teens and young adults and, if possible, reunite them with their families. Eventually, the little band of street missionaries became a Church of God congregation called simply The Mission Church.

By 1971, the hippie scene gave way to a rougher element. The flock soon left the two houses in Midtown and moved to the Gothic-Revival church on Ponce de Leon at Piedmont, now St. Paul’s Presbyterian.

When, in the mid-1970s, their rented building was about to become The Abbey restaurant, the little congregation applied for a loan to buy a church building on 14th Street a few blocks west of the Downtown Connector. By luck or providence, the bank loan officer’s runaway teenager had come home through the efforts of church members. They got their money.

In the basement of their new home, volunteers set up the Street Light Cafe, offering coffee and music to all comers. It became a hangout for students from nearby Georgia Tech.

In its heyday, the church’s services drew 150 worshipers, but as the young members matured, married and moved to the suburbs, few new ones came. When Deel took the pastorate in 1997, 30 was a standout crowd on a Sunday.

He was about five Sundays into his temporary pastorate on the day the prostitute came to church. Her name was Caroline. She was the first.

Others soon followed — drug addicts, the mentally ill, ex-convicts, more hookers, strippers, pimps and johns. Some were invited; some seemed to just show up. They came to church, and they came to seek help from the man they called “Pastor Bruce.” At first, he saw each new person as one more soul to relocate as he prepared to shut down the church and go back to Doraville. Eventually he faced reality.

He looked at Rhonda and said, “We’ve been conned by God.”



The move

The pressures of a preacher’s wife weighed heavily on Rhonda Deel. As her husband’s career advanced, she struggled with insecurities, fearful she couldn’t live up to the expectations of a congregation, even a tiny one.

The first evening she rode to Midtown with Deel for a meeting at his new church, she intended to wait in the car. Sitting there, she looked around the neighborhood at the seedy buildings and empty parking lots before Atlantic Station, Ikea and high-rise condos came to the area. She decided to go in after all.

Joining the group gathered in the basement coffee house, she was overcome by the warmth of the members and felt an immediate sense of belonging. By the time she left, she knew everyone’s name.

As the weeks passed and events unfolded, Rhonda grew more certain they were meant to be there. But when Bruce mentioned the possibility of moving their family into the city, she quipped, “I’ll see you on the weekends.”

A few months later, she was the one who broached the subject.

“If we’re going to win a city, she told him, “we need to live there.”

With its twin peaked roofs and white columns, the 65-year-old red brick home to The Mission Church reminded Deel of the traditional churches of his youth.

A previous congregation had fitted the education building with apartments to accommodate missionaries and visiting youth groups. And that’s where the Deels moved, into an apartment on the third floor. The walls were water-stained and the sheet rock crumbling. The bathrooms, equipped with urinals, were not appropriate for a family of little girls, then 7, 5, 3 and 1.

Church members helped out by painting and patching the walls. Still, Rhonda assesses bluntly, “It was ugly!”

On the day of the move, Rhonda was the last to leave her beloved home in Stone Mountain. She knew God was calling her family to the city, but, Lord, she hated to leave the prettiest house she’d ever lived in.

She sobbed and prayed as she drove her Jeep toward Midtown. Then she noticed the Bible on the seat next to her had fallen open to the book of Joshua. She looked more closely and her eyes fell on a verse in which God promised the faithful he would lead them “so that you may know the way you should go, for you have not passed this way before.”

By the time she pulled into the church parking lot, she had stopped crying.



The family

Within two days of the move, someone tried to steal the Deels’ white Ford van. During the six years they lived in the church, the family experienced three vehicle thefts, 34 break-ins and one break-out when a squatter left the building during the night. Twice, Deel chased thieves down the street, once while brandishing a baseball bat.

He went before judges to speak up for drug addicts and vandals, offering to supervise them as an alternative to jail. And he testified against a mentally ill man who threatened to kill his family.

Meanwhile, the church became home to an increasing number of people. At one time 17 people, in addition to the Deels, lived in the old church — pregnant girls, unwed mothers and their children, upstairs; and two or three single men in the basement.

Sometimes, as new people in need arrived and shared their stories, conversation around the dinner table became so graphic the Deels would tell their daughters, Go watch TV.

A 17-year-old Haitian girl caught a bus to Atlanta from Miami when she became pregnant by her sexually abusive stepfather. Rhonda was her birth coach, and the Deels helped her find an adoptive home for her son.

The Deels took temporary guardianship of several children whose mothers couldn’t care for them. Two-year-old Summer lived with them for a year until a court awarded custody to her aunt. Every Deel including Bruce shed tears as they watched the little girl ride away in her relatives’ car.

I’ll never do this again, Rhonda swore.

In less than a week, they were taking on little Victoria.

The Deel daughters found freedom and adventure in the old building that served as their home.

Forbidden to play outside without adult supervision, they found adventures inside the church, splashing in the baptismal pool and rappelling from the balcony with their jump ropes. “Playing hide-and-go-seek in a church is the best!” says Kelsi, now 22.

The girls formed long-lasting friendships with a few of the children who lived with them, and tight bonds with each other.

Along the way came another little Deel.

Baby Karli joined sisters Kassi, Kelsi, Kensi, and Kaylin — called K-1, K-2, K-3, K-4 and K-5 by their mom.



The ministry

By 2004, the church was running out of space.

Most of its newcomers were making their way to Midtown from The Bluffs, a neighborhood notorious as an open-air drug market and for some of the state’s highest crime statistics. So Deel began looking for a building amid the burned-out houses, boarded-up apartments and overgrown vacant lots. Being in the area would make the ministry more accessible to the people it served.

Only one problem: no money.

Malon Mimms, an Air Force veteran who dealt in commercial and industrial buildings, had an empty warehouse complex on the market. It sounded ideal — 210,000 square feet with a parking lot and some green space, all behind a fence with a guard’s shack. The former tenant, a paper company, had moved out. The price tag: $1.6 million.

Mimms liked Deel from the first handshake. He remembers warning Bruce, You can get shot and killed getting out of your car.

I’ll take the risk, Deel replied.

A few months later, Mimms donated the building.

When Deel took a handful of church members to see the property for the first time, rain was pouring down inside the building. Nevertheless, he persuaded a somewhat reluctant congregation to sell the paid-for 14th Street building to bankroll repairs. They could hold church services in the warehouse.

The Deel family moved to a new residence in Tyrone and in August 2004, The Mission Church opened City of Refuge at 1300 Joseph E. Boone Blvd. When trespassers who had been sleeping in the vacant buildings continued to break in, Deel confronted them.

Come around to the front door, he told them. I’ll give you whatever you need.


At 7 a.m. one recent hot summer day, the expansive dining room at City of Refuge was buzzing. Three little boys of kindergarten age ran squealing between big round tables where mothers coaxed their toddlers to eat their Tater Tots or Cheerios. Women noshed on biscuits and grits, too preoccupied to pay attention to the inspirational words in big block print on the walls—“excellence,” “dignity,” “grace,” “compassion.”

Today, City of Refuge serves more than 15,000 meals each month in the 180-Degree Kitchen, named for the hope it will turn lives around. Many of those meals include fresh vegetables grown in raised beds or the hydroponic growth system on the back of the property.

After breakfast, some of the women headed to their jobs; others looked for work. A few attended a class on the five mother sauces of classic French cooking taught by Robert Owens, the executive chef who oversees food operations and the ministry’s culinary arts school. Later they might earn money and experience working a banquet through the catering service. Or they could serve fish tacos and barbecue from the People’s Food Truck, launched with the help of local chef Ford Fry, whose restaurants include JCT Kitchen, King & Duke and The Optimist.

For the children, there might be cultural outings or dance lessons provided by the Atlanta Ballet. Teenagers might take advantage of tutoring services, summer camp activities or volunteer opportunities.

Many of the women and children live on campus — 100 women without children in a dormitory, and another 40 women and their children in hotel-style rooms. At any time as many as 125 newcomers are undergoing assessment to be admitted to City of Refuge or matched with another ministry.

The newest venture is a safe house for 12 women and girls who have escaped the sex trade; Deel won’t disclose its location. On the drawing board: a home for unwed pregnant girls and new mothers; an automotive repair training center; training programs in construction and heat and air conditioning repair.

City of Refuge also provides facilities for nonprofit organizations that offer additional services, such as children’s daycare, a fully accredited year-round Christian-based school and a health clinic.

A wide network of corporations, foundations, individuals and religious groups of various faiths support the efforts. The annual operating budget is $4 million.

Several former aid recipients are among the staff that keeps the ministry running, as are members of the Deel family. Bruce’s brother, Jeff, a former missionary to Jamaica, is chief operating officer; his nephew Jacob works in the kitchen; his daughter Kelsi oversees the new program for sex-trade escapees. Other daughters have held summer internships for the same pay as other interns — $100 a week.

As The City of Refuge has expanded, Deel’s role has become less hands-on, but he gets into the trenches whenever he can. One day he may eat with homeless men who smell of urine and sweat; the next day he may dine in the elegant home of a wealthy philanthropist. He’s grown equally comfortable with both.

Groups who want to replicate his work sometimes invite him to speak to them about strategy. He tells them he doesn’t have one. He calls his approach “ministry by need.” When he sees a gap in services, he fills it. The funding has always followed.

The underpinning of the ministry is still The Mission Church, and Deel is still its pastor.

On a recent Sunday, he stepped up to preach wearing a short-sleeved, plaid shirt open at the neck. He stood on the floor with no lectern, no notes, taking his sermon from Psalm 139:14: “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

When his sermon was over, he invited women who wanted him to pray for them to form a circle. He spoke a soft blessing to each, grasping a hand or touching a head. Several wept and hugged each other. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” one said softly.



The victories

Ryan Marchman is the first person many visitors see at City of Refuge.

Marchman, 36, was abused by a relative, joined the Gangster Disciples street gang at 13, spent his youth in detention centers, dealt drugs and committed robbery to support his drug habit. He moved from his hometown of Cleveland to Atlanta nine years ago to get a new start, but all he started was a new gang.

A year later and already on probation for assault, he was walking down Hamilton E. Holmes Boulevard in southwest Atlanta toward the home of a man he planned to rob. He thought he was on to a sure thing, having learned that his intended victim had both drugs and money.

On his way, he had a change of heart he can explain only as an encounter with God. As he started down the man’s street, he suddenly felt weak and shaky, and he started to weep. He turned around and that’s when he ran into Greg Washington, an ex-con doing street ministry. Washington, now director of youth programming at City of Refuge, took Marchman to meet Deel.

Marchman started attending worship services and Bible study. Because of his criminal record, he was unable to find a job or an apartment, so Deel let him live on campus for three years.

He earned income by sweeping the parking lot and learned to budget his money. He earned his GED, took courses in job and life skills, and went to drug counseling. He learned to drive a truck, got a commercial license and began making deliveries for the 180-Degree Kitchen. He bought the first car he ever acquired legally.

Today he’s a security guard at City of Refuge. He lives in his own apartment and pays child support to an ex-wife. After eight years, he’s still clean.

“Bruce gave me a chance,” he says.

Unlike Marchman, Donna Kennedy, 55, had lived a good life. For almost 25 years, she’d held a job as an analyst for a lingerie manufacturing company in Alabama. When the company moved to Kentucky, she took a job with a manufacturer in Atlanta. Then the Great Recession hit, and she was laid off.

Unable to find work, Kennedy lived off unemployment and her savings. She was volunteering at Gateway Center serving homeless people downtown when she heard about City of Refuge.

She entered the culinary arts school and lived on site for six months. She now has her own apartment and works in the 180-Degree Kitchen. There, she befriended a woman who was sold into prostitution by her own mother, fixed a comforting late-night meal for a woman who arrived badly beaten and prepared a wedding reception for a young man who’d been through City of Refuge. She makes a lot less money than in her old life, but she finds the work much more satisfying.

Not all stories have happy endings. Despite the effort, people go back to the streets, back to drugs, alcohol and crime. Sometimes they die.

One was Jake, a crack addict who lived with the Deels back in the 14th Street building and tried many times to beat the curse. He was a gentle man who loved golf and managed, no matter how rough things got, to hang on to an old set of clubs.

Over the years he disappeared and reappeared time and again.

One day he was found dead in an old pickup truck on City of Refuge grounds, his golf bag beside him. Perhaps knowing he was dying, he had gone to where he had felt loved.

Deel keeps the golf bag in his office as a memento.

“Jake represented so many we have known,” Deel wrote in a reflection on the man’s death. “He was the picture of Ralph and Larry and Dennis and Al and Betty and Darren and a 100 more of our friends ... I wept not just for Jake, but all those like Jake.”

Many people who’ve been through The City of Refuge have kept in touch to let Deel know they’re OK.

One is Caroline, the prostitute who walked down the aisle 17 years ago, when Deel thought he was just the temporary pastor of The Mission Church. She checked in with him about a year ago, saying she was still grateful for his help. She said she was safe, happily married and moving to South Carolina. Deel doesn’t expect to hear from her again.

“We are far better people for having been involved in this journey,” Deel says of his family as he looks back on the last 17 years. “This is not something we do. It’s our life.”

He repeats himself for emphasis.

“It’s our life.”

Gayle White is a former writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who covered the religion beat for 15 years. A member of First Presbyterian Church, White is part of a church study group that grew concerned about the shortage of shelters for homeless  women and children. While investigating various programs, she learned about Bruce Deel and the City of Refuge.  When White heard that the ministry grew out of Deel’s assignment to close down the church, she wanted to find out more and was astonished at what she discovered. This is the story of a church that has identified a need and set out to fill it, time and time again.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

About the reporter

Gayle White was a reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 36 years, covering religion for more than 15 years. She was twice named Reporter of the Year by the Religion Newswriters Association, the professional group of reporters and editors covering religion for the secular media, and received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She is now a freelance writer living in Tucker.

About the photographer

Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.

Next week: Susan Pavlin helps immigrant families grow their own food and sell the surplus.

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