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Reflecting on ‘Render Unto Athena’

It has often been the case, when confronting the problems plaguing our local community, that we look outside of the community for the financial support necessary for our efforts. We place our hopes in the feds to give grants, in state government to provide programming and in our county commissioners to use local tax dollars to improve the plight of our poor. The problem with all these funding sources is that they come with stipulations that inadvertently stifle innovation, which is no strike to these groups, all of whom have a fiduciary responsibility to protect the public trust.

But, what if we had a pool of unrestricted funds that could be directed toward social innovation? What if we set our leaders and activists free to pursue their dream strategies and solutions? What if we invested it in the creativity of our social servants? Could we, by doing so, reverse the trend in our community’s poverty—which, at 38 percent, has doubled since 2000?

Two weeks ago, I delivered a sermon at the Hill Chapel Baptist Church unveiling a vision for Athens that I entitled, “Render unto Athena.” The vision is a response to the recent tax cuts which were passed into law in December—which, while benefiting Athenian households at a minimum of $300 in tax savings each year, is being at least partially funded by social services, housing and education cuts.

My conviction is that we should “Render Unto Athena” by collectively providing for the welfare of our community. If all 44,000 households in Athens rendered $300 unto Athena, we could raise a total of $84 million dollars over seven years of this “tax relief.”

In the weeks that have ensued since the Render Unto Athena launch, I’ve been inundated with novel solutions presented to me by citizens. The first was Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) as a supplemental activity to the Ark’s financial programming. I’ve also had it pointed out to me that, with half of the $12 million we’re capable of raising annually, we could establish a youth entrepreneurship center and provide part-time summer jobs for all work-eligible Athens youth at $15 an hour. I’ve also had it suggested that we should re-establish an Office of Minority Business (OMB), to address the embarrassing paucity of “person of color”-owned businesses in Athens. And, the ideas keep on flowing in faster than my brain can process.

My response has been the same: “It is not for me, but for us to decide how we should proceed. For, this is our money and our opportunity to do something remarkable in Athens.” We are faced with an unprecedented opportunity with the arrival of these funds, for never before have we had such an unexpected and unrestricted windfall. My prayer is that these dollars will be the impetus for a shared community agenda, building upon the solid foundation of our recent assessments and the invaluable work of our local agencies.