Q&A: Rosemary Sherrod on Hopewell’s Transformation

In December of 2008, G.O.D. International relocated its headquarters to a neighborhood just outside of Nashville, called Hopewell.  In the following interview I conducted with Rosemary Sherrod, you will see what we first encountered, the journey we have been on, and where we are today. 

Regarding our focus on investing into this neighborhood, we’ve called the work "The Hopewell Project."  You see, projects have a beginning and an end. We believed the day would come when this project would reach its completion.  Not that we would then abandon it, or that everything would be perfect from there forward, but that what we set out to do for the people of Hopewell would come to fruition. We are now at that point in time. 

Hopewell is our home and we will continue to invest into it through youth programs, widow care, community events, our K-12 academy, and other activities relevant to its residents.  Rosemary Sherrod, our resident Hopewell historian, has not only spent many hours researching the history of this neighborhood, but she has also spent countless hours serving and organizing others to serve those in need in our community and to ensure Hopewell is a welcoming neighborhood to all its residents. So, we thought it best to give her a public space to share about the transformation evident 7 years later. 

What brought G.O.D. International to the neighborhood of Hopewell?  

Students and volunteers worked day and night for 40 days in the winter of '08-'09 to renovate our building that had suffered decades of neglect.  

Not everyone who saw this place at the beginning could see it. The place where the Lord was leading us did not look like a place you would want to be. The building was rough—with graffiti, broken windows, and every other sign of neglect. In addition to the deteriorating building, the neighborhood was also suffering the effects of time--people moving out, people who didn’t have an interest in being neighbors moving in, houses that were being used for illegal activity.

We moved in and started with the obvious and for us, the immediate. We started renovating the building. But it was impossible not to let who we are affect where we were. The neighbors started to get to know us by our works.

Neighbors saw an ethic that embodied “loving your neighbor.”  It is not unusual for people in our community to extend their hands to help someone in need; in fact, it is a practice that identifies us—literally. Offer to help a neighbor and be sure to hear, “Are you from that old school down the street?”

As G.O.D. moved in, we, and you in particular, began to learn the history of this neighborhood. Give us a brief history of this neighborhood.

Jim Winters was born December 9, 1887 in a log cabin on the Bondurant plantation in Hadley's Bend, which later became known as the Hopewell neighborhood.  Jim's parents migrated to Hopewell after the emancipation.  The Winters' family, like most of the early residents in Hopewell, got their name from plantation owners.  In a 1947 interview, Jim said, his grandparents were slaves who "belonged to white folks."

My interest in the history of this neighborhood started with my interest in the people here. By walking around, I met people – mostly elderly. I talked to them and asked questions. As older people tend to do, they talked about the past. For me, the stories were fascinating and I realized that this neighborhood represented a rich history during a time of overt racism and segregation. A woman born in the twenties would tell me about the lives of her grandparents, no longer slaves, but also not free. I would hear accounts of the forties and fifties when Jim Crow was strong in this area. She and others could name the restaurants they could go to as long as it was to order food at the back door. I listened to stories of the turbulent sixties from those who actively participated in some of the marches and those who wondered how this newly recognized right would change their lives—or if it would change their lives.

I was a white woman listening to stories from mostly black women and I was deeply affected by all that I heard. Women, and some men, shared a perception I had not considered— often to my shame. I was humbled by their willingness to share with me, inspired by stories of strength and determination to protect their families and have the best life they could. Faith in God was a consistent thread in nearly everyone’s story. All of what I heard was too good, too important, not to record and preserve. When I started the process, I didn’t know that Gregg Garner had already promised the community leaders that he would dedicate a time and space for Hopewell’s history to be told. Now, that promise has been fulfilled. The gathering of stories for me is an ongoing process but the history that has been collected is displayed for everyone and anyone to see when they visit this ‘old school’ as the neighbors call it and ‘our organization's offices’ as it is known now.

How has that history informed our presence in the neighborhood?  What has been G.O.D.’s approach to making a positive impact on the neighborhood?

Our Widow Care Program prioritizes widows in our midst with the most need and our students and social service personnel work with them on a regular basis to ensure needs are met and to hear their stories.  

If you visit our headquarters, the Hopewell History wall will be one of the first things you see when you walk in our front doors. 

The impact of gathering stories, pictures, articles, and, in the way that we can, preserving the history, means that we had to hear the stories of those who lived through a time when their personal and collective narrative was not counted as worthy of recording. To be interested, genuinely interested, in the story of another is to say ‘your life is valuable, your story is worth hearing, and our society will benefit from listening to you.' We know that is the case with people in Hopewell. They have a story that will benefit anyone—from the new student coming to the Institute to learn how to serve others, especially the poor and forgotten, to the long time Nashville resident who visits this neighborhood with either a pre-conceived idea, or no idea, of who lives here. I have watched people, some who live just five miles from our property, enter our building, casually glance at the display of old pictures with writing under them, and get pulled into the narrative. “I lived here all my life and didn’t even know this place (Hopewell) existed. I had no idea of the history of Hopewell!”

On a personal note, I have benefited from hearing these stories. I can honestly say that I have been transformed by learning about my neighbors. Whatever unexamined thoughts I had about ‘black lives’ were brought to the forefront of my mind and I had to examine the what’s and why’s of my thoughts and perceptions.

You’ve had a chance to talk to a lot of the long-time residents of Hopewell.  What are some memorable comments they have made regarding the change that has taken place in the neighborhood?

Today, Hopewell is home to an 8-week summer camp called Camp Skillz, where kids who would otherwise not have an opportunity for quality summer programs can come and learn character values and practical skills.  

“Mothers are pushing babies in ­­strollers.”
“Kids are playing outside.”
“My grandson comes to your after school program.”
“That young man helped me fix my back door.”

All of these comments are directed at what the neighbors see now, but they are also reminiscent of how the neighborhood used to be.

“We used to take responsibility for each other’s children.”
“We planted gardens and gave freely to our neighbors.”

They are reminded of when ‘neighbor’ meant more than just proximity, it meant a duty and relationship. Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s what is happening in Hopewell today.