The New School Choice Agenda
So, Wijesooriya led a group of white and black Christians on a spring-break trip to Jackson, Mississippi, to meet Christian community development "grandfather" John Perkins and serve at his Voice of Calvary ministries. The trip sparked a vision. Widmer says, "[We] wondered if one day we might do this together—move into an urban community together and live out the principles of the Christian Community Development Association."
For years, the vision remained dormant. Then a number of prerequisites fell together. Avula and Wijesooriya joined a residency program at the Medical College of Virginia in downtown Richmond. Illian, a private wealth manager who works from home, had enough job flexibility to move to Richmond. That same year, Widmer received the call to become a pastor in a Richmond church. By that time, each man had married a woman who shared the vision for planting roots deep in an urban community.
But they didn't want to set up shop in just any poor area.
"We wanted to be invited into the neighborhood, and we wanted to go to a place where God was already at work," says Mary Kay Avula. When they visited Church Hill, they met with local Christians. Among them, providentially, was Don Coleman, a local pastor. After they had talked, Coleman "claimed us as an answer to his prayer," says Avula. "He sensed that the Spirit was calling us long before we did."
When another Christian, Selena Ruffin, invited the couples to move to her street, three of the four families became her immediate neighbors. The Widmers moved in a few blocks away—all in Church Hill. They soon connected with Angie and Percy Strickland, another Christian couple who had arrived in Church Hill three years prior, setting up Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT).
Church Hill sits, literally, atop a hill overlooking Richmond's downtown. Once home to Richmond's upper class, it still features a number of historic churches. But the demographics have radically changed. It now hosts a majority African American population, and most residents live at or near the poverty line.
The UVA families quickly built relationships with their neighbors: The Wijesooriyas took in a young unmarried couple expecting their first child, and the Widmers housed two high-school boys when their mother needed temporary support. But the uva families soon realized the move would not come without costs. Catherine Illian, a petite woman with curly brown hair, recalls a time when she heard shouting and scuffling outside her door. "I was ready to call the police when I looked outside and saw that it was just a group of men socializing and talking very loudly …. I am still learning the difference between loud friendly banter and something more aggressive."
Illian faced aggression head-on in August 2007, when she and Mary Kay Avula watched a man across the street firing a handgun. "I was scared," Avula recalls. "But I was also well aware that there were dangers associated with living here."
Despite the taste of violence, Avula says her family never considered leaving. "There are dangers no matter what path you choose in life. Some of them you think you can control, but you can't."
Each family took jobs that served Richmond's poor. Danny Avula became Richmond's deputy director of public health. Romesh Wijesooriya, a pediatrician at Virginia Commonwealth University, began studying childhood obesity, a chronic health problem in urban areas. With Ruffin, some of the families revived a local Christian nonprofit, Urban Hope, to ensure affordable housing throughout the neighborhood. And Mary Kay Avula started teaching at Chimborazo Elementary.