Interviewed May 5, 2020, and again June 9 (following riot in Buckhead, surrounding the church).
Interview edited for clarity and length.
James, 52, is a member of the Property Management team at PRUMC and has worked at the church for nearly 14 years. He has three children and five grandchildren, who live in South Carolina.
What has it been like working at the church during this lockdown? How has your day-to-day job been different?
It’s totally different from a work perspective, because there’s no one here and we’re usually very busy helping people or getting ready for an event. To go from 100 down to 1 in that respect is just kind of devastating. The best way I would describe the feeling of the empty church is eerie. This is something I’ve never experienced and never thought I would.
Early on, we’re doing a lot of special maintenance projects. We’re taking everything out of every room and sanitizing, including every chair. We’re cleaning the carpet in the entire building. From my perspective, everything is very sanitized, very clean. During this lockdown time, our homeless population around the church has increased a good bit, so we have a lot more work keeping the outside clean. We set up a makeshift toilet outside and a cleaning station for them. And we’re still doing Outreach right outside of the Rollins reception space, with a cart out there and water.
We have a morning and an evening shift, and we’re all coming in and helping, some of us with modified hours. I’m the early bird. I come in at 5:30 or 6:00 am, making sure things were kept right overnight. No one got inside and so forth. It’s very strange to not be going around opening all of the doors for the people who are normally coming and going from all the different entrances.
You were first on the scene at PRUMC after the riots that occurred during the night on May 29, weren’t you?
Yes. I got here the next morning at 5:00. But I’d only seen something about downtown. I didn’t know that had happened in our area. As I was on my way to work I started seeing police cars, windows busted out, a lot of police at Lenox Mall. Those big, heavy signs that tell you to get over into the next lane for construction – all of them were turned over. The further I came down Peachtree, the destruction was devastating. As I was getting to the church, in the darkness, I saw people still going in and out of a store across the street, carrying things out. I did not know what I was gonna find.
But once I got to the church and started walking around, checking, I couldn’t believe it. There was no damage. Everywhere I walked, inside and out, there was no damage. When I came around to the front of the building, some of our homeless people [B.J., Keri, Mike, Curtis and Ricardo] started talking to me about all that had happened, all they’d seen. And they also told me that they’d talked to the rioters who approached us. They told them, “Please don’t destroy this place. It’s a wonderful place that helps us out. This is God’s house! Don’t destroy the church.” And they left.
I was so glad that everything was spared. All of this, on top of all that’s already happened, I don’t really know how to explain it to you, the way this feels.
Had you spoken like that with this group before? Did you know them?
Oh yes, I see them every day. I’ve built a relationship with them. I treat everybody the same, no matter who, and the whole staff is the same way. It’s always best to build a good relationship with people, and maybe that was part of what paid off here.
How are you personally coping with the pandemic and the isolation from day to day?
I spend a lot of time outside, both working at church and afterward. Different people have hired me to come to their homes to do a few projects outside. And I have three kids and five grandkids in South Carolina, so I’m in touch with them most days and they’re all well. I watch the news every day, because I want to know what’s happening. I’m an introvert, so being home alone or working on my own doesn’t bother me. But I’m afraid that this thing is steadily climbing, and people are not paying close enough attention. It doesn’t hit home until it hits your home, and then you see the effects of it. I’m lucky, though, that none of my family has been sick so far.
What do you think we could learn from this experience and how we’re handling it as a society?
These are trying times, and it’s strange going through something so different than anything we’ve ever experienced, especially being my age. In some ways it’s like a kid on his very first day of school. But we should all see that we’re not in this thing alone. Since nobody’s ever seen this before, everybody’s opinion counts. Our staff has learned to come together in a different way every day but still make things work as a team. [As of June] more of the staff has started coming back in to the building, and that’s changed the feeling. It feels good to be around people again. Just to have them here, it’s a comfort.
Obviously, George Floyd’s death has changed the world forever, and that’s so important. We haven’t had a chance yet to see all the effects that will have, including how the marches and the pandemic going on at the same time affect each other. Will we see a rise in cases? I’m afraid we might. I do hope that we move more slowly on any big reopening so that we can see what happens.
I think at this point all we can do is play it by ear and just be ready for the next round if that happens. We’ll be better prepared because of what we’ve learned this time. I really don’t have anything else from a reference point to compare this to. We don’t know what’s gonna happen. We can only rely on God, trust the experts, and use a little common sense and judgment.