To Touch Eternity

Rebuilding the Walls

To get to MacLeod’s church—The Foundry—and its nearby brick warehouse, which serves a variety of ministry purposes, I drive past upscale coffee shops, trendy bars and a series of condo high-rises that are being marketed to Nashville’s young professionals. But as I follow 11th Avenue, as my directions indicate I should, I find myself veering away from the trendy parts of downtown and headed underneath an overpass and down what appears to be a narrow service drive lined with old brick buildings. It looks like a movie set for a gangster film in 19th-century New York. Cars are clumsily parked on chipped sidewalks. With exception of an occasional jackhammer and the dull roar of cars humming across the overpass a few blocks away, all is strangely quiet.

But this area is no longer ground zero for Nashville’s war on poverty. In fact, the neighborhood has undergone something of a renaissance of late. The dilapidated public housing that once existed a stone’s throw from The Foundry is gone, replaced by impressive new row houses and new requirements for the low-income residents who live there. About 50 percent of the old residents are gone.

Down the street is a well-known independent radio station and a popular local beer-maker. Farther down, what was an auto plant in the early 1900s is now being marketed as lofts. The real estate company of record is calling the area “the coolest neighborhood in Nashville.” It’s clearly a bit of hyperbole, but it’s not too difficult to imagine that moniker being true five years from now.

After the meeting with the music executive, MacLeod walks with me down the street, sounding almost apologetic about the gentrification that’s taking place in what was once the most dangerous part of town. “That corner used to be a drug corner,” MacLeod says. “We occupy that all summer.”

Yet his enthusiasm for the least of these doesn’t waver, and moments later we’re walking through the 30,000 square feet of warehouse space his ministry occupies across the street, breezing past the kitchen where volunteers prepare weekly meals for the homeless, past a long table loaded with groceries that will soon be bagged and given away, past a cavernous and incredibly sparse bunk room where students who come to volunteer stay—a room that looks a bit like a bomb shelter.

We end the tour in an unimpressive sanctuary that’s more like a gymnasium with pews. It is several times the size of The Foundry’s sanctuary and it’s where meals are served during warmer months, when the biggest crowds turn out. It’s also where monthly Friday night worship services are held for teenagers, in which they are encouraged to participate in a day of community service and ministry the following Saturday. This is even where a three-times-per-year worship music camp for “musicianaries”—usually 20-somethings more interested in reaching the lost than scoring a record deal—is held.

MacLeod uses a variety of names for all of these ministries, and I tease him about it, noting that he might want to make things a bit easier for the journalists who have to write about all of this. MacLeod is surprisingly sensitive to my joke, and 10 minutes later, we’re back in the nondescript room across the street. He’s trying to explain the different ministry names, which are written out on the whiteboard with notes scribbled underneath each.

“It’s pretty simple,” he tells me, and then proceeds to go through each: Thunder School (a three-monthlong music camp for “musicianaries” taught by music industry professionals); Rolling Thunder (a tour slated for this summer during which “musicianaries” will play impoverished Native American reservations); Meltdown (the monthly teen rally); and Eagle’s Landing (a camp for inner-city kids on 70 acres of land that the ministry owns outside of Nashville).

That doesn’t include the prison ministry, or the Kidz Club that MacLeod has become famous for in the neighborhood (volunteers go door to door on Saturday mornings in the summer, bringing neighborhood kids in for a sort of Vacation Bible School). Nor does this include the weekly homeless meal (Meal of Hope) that is being held in about an hour, or any number of other ministries that MacLeod, with a quiet enthusiasm, occasionally mentions as an afterthought. MacLeod gets excited about ministries the way some people get excited about vacations and holidays.

These ministries fall under the umbrella of MacLeod’s nonprofit, Provision International, which subscribes to the motto: “Alleviating suffering and abolishing poverty.” What’s interesting, though, is that there’s little distinction between these ministries, this nonprofit and MacLeod’s church. Regardless of job title, MacLeod’s seven-person staff has its hands in everything. For example, Marco Villalobos, a 28-year-old musician who heads up Thunder School, helps with the Meal of Hope and is also involved in Sunday worship. Yet I’m still curious how this really works, where the volunteers come from. After all, churches five times the size of The Foundry don’t do this much community outreach.

“So you still preach every Sunday at The Foundry?” I ask. “Yes,” he replies. “How do you do it? And are your volunteers all church members?”

“When you’re here, you serve—it’s what we do,” he answers. “We have around 100, 120 people, but we’re kind of like the Special Forces; we’re not for everyone.” But MacLeod’s train of thought keeps getting interrupted. A father and son knock on the door. “We wanted to help tonight,” the dad says, ducking his head in the room. MacLeod’s cell phone is constantly ringing, and each time he looks at it to decide whether to answer. Eventually he gets a call that he just has to take. “Just a second—this is Brazil. My wife and I are adopting a child from the slums,” he tells me as he hurriedly puts the phone to his ear. Three dropped calls from Brazil later the storm is over long enough for a few answers. But the Meal of Hope starts soon; I need to hurry.

I learn that the man who just ducked his head in isn’t a church member but a longtime supporter who has donated significant amounts of time and money to the ministry. MacLeod says he never knows who will show up for various outreaches and events, but somehow people always show up. He also has a handful of “musicianaries” from Thunder School who stay on as interns and live in an old, stand-alone apartment building next to The Foundry. And when Thunder School is in session, another 30 or 40 volunteers are available, along with anyone else who wants to help.

MacLeod is used to walking this sort of tightrope, living on faith. He got the seed money for the warehouse more than a decade ago by marching into the office of the president of Gaylord Entertainment—a publicly traded hotel and entertainment chain that owns the iconic Grand Ole Opry—and sketching out his vision for The Foundry campus on a piece of paper. Amazingly, MacLeod walked out with a $30,000 check. “When Nehemiah was building something, he went straight to the king,” MacLeod says. “Everything down here’s a miracle. We didn’t have a penny.”

Without intending to disparage him, I confess that I’m perplexed. MacLeod is fond of saying “I heard God say” or “God spoke to me,” but his isn’t like the charismatic ministries seen on television—the grandiose churches and pastors with finely tailored clothes. Nor is MacLeod an overwhelming personality like many charismatic leaders I’ve observed. MacLeod, I learn, doesn’t even have an office, which is why we’ve spent so much time in this uninspiring room with the whiteboard.

“So much of church in America can be a ‘bless-me club,’ but once you’ve been blessed, touched, inspired, healed, what will you do with it?” MacLeod asks. “How can we think we have good church when our inner cities are rotting, when our kids are going to jail? My main concern is the reformation of the church. It was moving the wrong direction, but I felt the Lord telling me that during my time, it would shift direction.”

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