In the town of Asheville, North Carolina, we found a compelling partnership that links the local faith-based community with civic projects involving stakeholders in business, the arts, education, and the public sector.
ASHEVILLE — This quaint and quirky town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains reminds me of Bellingham, my hometown. There is an inviting combination of sun-splashed historic brick buildings, locally-sourced restaurants with sidewalk dining, and charming storefronts. The warm spring weather (near the shooting location for The Hunger Games!) made me think of a summer day back home.
In exploring the town, what immediately caught my eye — besides a male nun pedaling a gigantic bicycle with golden handlebar streamers — were clusters of people wearing Carolina-blue shirts.They were everywhere, they were ready to chat, and they were more than willing to give us a few hours of their time over the two days we were in Asheville.
I quickly learned most of them were out-of-town visitors, taking part in Revival Asheville. Between April 16 and 22, Pack Square Park is home to Revive Asheville, a centerpiece of a movement known as Time to Revive, founded by Kyle Martin and supported by over 400 volunteers from 13 states. Guided by their Christian faith, Time to Revive volunteers connect with targeted local communities through intentional acts of outreach and bridge building — city ambassadors if you will.
Time to Revive was founded in 2009, but the movement started three years earlier in Dallas, I learned while interviewing Martin under his group’s enormous white tent in the park. Fresh off a 40-day juice fast, Martin looked like he could stand to drink a milkshake or seven.
“I was walking out of the building one day and the Lord just said, ‘Kyle I want you to pursue a revival in this city,’” Martin said.
For six days, Martin walked the Dallas streets, praying and fasting, until he found a piece of property suitable for Dallas Revival, which caught the interest of some in the Christian community around the nation. In years since, Martin took his team and supporters to Santa Fe, Sedona, and Flint. After volunteering in Flint, four men from Asheville asked Martin to bring the revival to their city next.
But this isn’t about hellfire and brimstone, which is what I envision for a southern revival meeting. It’s more like a civic engagement project. For example, Martin and his team spent the year prior to Revive Asheville creating a comprehensive strategic plan on how to work with city leaders and to support Asheville.
“It’s like a business,” Martin said. “I was a business major. You would say, ‘If I want to get my target audience, I need to know my audience.’ The church doesn’t do that. The church doesn’t get to know their community.”
John Lay, the program director and discipleship coordinator, makes sure Time to Revive knows their audience. He is chief fact hunter and data gatherer for Time to Revive, and he is a walking Wikipedia on the city of Asheville — its history, its residents, and anything else you might want to know. Bespectacled and looking better suited to be an architect or computer programmer, Lay deftly took our questions as he air traffic-controlled volunteers around the tent.
“In this city you’ve got 45% are under the age of 35. But at the same time, it has a very high concentration of those over 65 compared to the rest of the country,” Lay said. Numbers indicate that the over-65 population is 16.3% in Asheville, compared to 13% nationally. “So you have two polar opposites,” Lay said.
Lay said that Asheville was severely affected by the Great Depression, and didn’t finish paying off its debt until the late 1980s. In fact, I learned that Asheville had the highest per capita debt in the nation — the city owed a staggering $56 million. Because of this, the downtown area remained virtually unchanged between 1929 and the 1980s (the one positive side benefit from such financial challenges is the preserved quaint factor today).
Growth in the 1980s brought an influx of people and was good for the community, but also created a division between the old and new, the haves and have-nots. Current leaders in Asheville wanted to change the dynamic, which is where Time to Revive came in.
Sam Fine, goateed pastor of the local King of Glory Christian Church, one of nine local churches that are part of the initiative, offered this perspective: “In some ways, even though we embrace a lot of different types of people, there’s a real segmented fragmented aspect to our church, that for a long time I have really felt like Asheville is to be unified, not under a denomination, not under a certain cause, but would be united under a banner of love. Not just in word, but also in deed.”
Another local pastor, Rocky Russell of Access Church, said “There are so many poor and working poor in this area. Because it is a destination for many people who have second homes as a vacation place, you see a lot of tinsel but what’s going on under the surface — there are some people with real needs.”
Martin and his team studied data, talked with local businesses and community leaders, and surveyed local residents, then came up with a plan for Asheville. For Revive Asheville, they chose to focus on seven “mountains” or aspects of the community: government, arts, media, business, education, public service, and housing. An essential part of the plan was an action corresponding to each day’s theme. For example, Revive Asheville offered free lunch to all 1200 government employees earlier this week, and over 600 came.
“So every day we’re doing a deed because people look at Christians and say, ‘You guys sure talk a lot but you don’t live it out.’ So we want to show a reflection. Jesus really did both,” Martin said.
The actions and willingness to engage with the community has been noticed by local residents. Theisa McArdel was sitting with her family at a table under the tent for lunch. Her bright pink shirt stood out in a sea of blue. A volunteer held McArdel’s infant son as she ate.
Between bites she said, “These people are real. They don’t judge and they’re accommodating. They’re just accepting here.”
It seemed to me that the ultimate goal of Revive Asheville is to bring the community together, to show the residents someone cares about them, that someone loves them. The goal has distinctly Christian goals, but Martin does reach outside the Christian community.
“We met with the mayor and several city council members, not all of them. Probably at least half,” Lay said, in reference to the preparation for Revive Asheville.
“When I go into a city, I would rather work with politicians than with some churches, because at least some of them would say, ‘We want to see a change.’ The reason we’re pursuing Revive Asheville is because we want to see change,” Martin said.
Looking at the nation from a national perspective, Martin said he had the chance to pray in-person for Republican candidate Rick Santorum earlier this year, and thinks everyone should be involved in the political process.
“We should support and encourage our guys here. If they represent us, which is supposed to be the United States’ model — I was born on the 4th of July. I love the U.S. — then we should in some way encourage these guys,” Martin stated.
He also believes that positive social change is possible and necessary, not just in Asheville, but around the country. And each of us can contribute to make a change.
“It took me 11 years to embrace the calling of my life. If everyone does what they’re called to, you can change the world one person at a time,” Martin said.
After talking to the organizers and participants of Revive Asheville, I began to think about how the concepts of engagement, community involvement, and change could be applied back in Seattle. Any organization that motivates this many volunteers from such a wide area while also connecting an immediate community has a model worth examining.
Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, it’s clear to me that Time to Revive, with its work at Revive Asheville, is on to something when it comes to engaging the community.
“After this thing is said and done, if we don’t leave an impact on this city, then it will be done in vain. Love sustains things,” Fine said.
It doesn’t seem like the work thus far has been in vain. Just ask McArdel.
“Revive Asheville is one of the best things to hit Asheville, to be honest,” she said.