“Ann has taught me a lot about courageously standing up for those who cannot stand for themselves, as she continually lobbies on behalf of others, despite her own challenging condition,” says Caroline Lawson D’09, a Warrenton, Va., student and co-leader for Project Bri(ddd)ge. “She is a living example that faith must be a cornerstone of any effort to help one another. She has helped me … to believe that I can do anything I set my mind to as long as I depend on God for everything.”
Atwater’s life story is a source of inspiration, says Paige Martin D’08, an Albany, Ga., native on track to be ordained as a United Methodist elder after graduation. “I knew that Ms. Atwater was a well-known civil rights activist, and I thought that it would be such a privilege to do something for her, knowing that she had done so much for humanity and for Durham.”
Project Bri(ddd)ge, adds Martin, offers important lessons for incoming students. “It reminds us that we aren’t just contained in a little bubble at Duke. We live in the city of Durham, and we cannot claim to be passionate about ministry while ignoring our surroundings.”
On Wednesdays, Atwater and her “son” Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove D’06 teach Bible study at a local homeless shelter. “Jonathan is the son God sent to me, and he takes care of me like a son. He calls every month to be sure I can make the utilities, and he lets me know when he’ll be out of town in case I need him,” says Atwater, who is a long-time member of Mt. Calvary United Church of Christ and was the church’s first woman deacon.
For Rebecca Rigel D’08, learning about the history of race relations in Durham has enriched her experiences at Duke.
“I have learned that family and love transcend color boundaries. It is definitely possible for people of varied races, ages and socioeconomic standing to form surrogate families, but it takes patience, humility, willingness to learn, faith, hope and love. In fact, with Ann it has become a reality,” says Rigel, a native of Gainesville, Ga.
“As I’ve grown up in the South, my imagination has been shaped by the racial tensions and divisions that exist in our society. Unfortunately, because of my immersion in the culture, I don’t even realize the degree to which my way of thinking has been shaped by the negative influences of society,” she says.
“I am beginning to see the world more like Ann sees the world—to see every person as a child of God apart from skin color or socioeconomic status. It is possible to transform the imagination so that the boundaries that separate the races and classes can be torn down and a new world can be created here and now.”
Sonia Norris D’06, support team initiative director for Project Compassion, says the 25-student support team for Atwater is a prime example of how Project Compassion works.
“Ann’s team is a perfect example of tapping into a person’s network and our community networks to help. It takes all of us, and that cumulative effect makes a huge difference for people in need.”
Norris, who had also met Atwater while a student at Duke Divinity School, contacted Dean Duncan in an effort to tap into a group of students who might help with Atwater’s care.