Members mourn Atlanta church; why don’t they talk?

Friendship Baptist ChurchWhen a congregation has to leave its church building, it’s like moving away from home. Members remember all the things that happened there. They think of fun and funny anecdotes, and the crises they weathered. They recall what the church meant to the community.

All that is even more intense when the church is 152 years old, as is Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta. Which makes a New York Times story on its last service all the more puzzling.

The story has not a single quote from any longtime members, although it says that up to four generations of members were at the farewell service. It offers some appetizers on the church’s influence, but doesn’t serve the main course. And even after three readings, I didn’t see a clear reason the building was to be demolished.

Not that the story lacks some telling details. The lede paints Atlanta as a city so proud of its racial harmony that it neglects its heritage:

So it was perhaps not surprising that Friendship Baptist, the city’s oldest African-American Baptist church, founded by former slaves with help from whites and still thriving, found itself in the path of bulldozers that will raze the Georgia Dome as its replacement rises next door. The church is to be taken down, as early as Monday, 152 years after it was established.

Friendship, one of two churches whose multimillion dollar relocation/reconstruction tab will be covered by the city, is steeped in history. Two historically black colleges, Morehouse and Spelman, held classes in its basement, Morehouse moving into the church from Augusta in 1879 and Spelman starting there two years later. Trained musicians led the flock in song, with an emphasis on preserving old Negro spirituals. Nine other houses of prayer spun off Friendship, earning it the appellation “mother church.”

Kneeling at its pews were up to four generations of families; one longtime worshiper died recently at age 108. Prominent judges, politicians, educators and entrepreneurs attended, filling the collection baskets to the brim. (The church’s security guard said he saw a check for $50,000, someone’s annual tithe.)

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Why can’t press get religion, when covering black churches?

Let’s face it. The mainstream press really struggles when trying to cover life in African-American churches.

On one level, black churches are treated like giant political institutions that — in a city like Baltimore — speak for a crucial segment of the voting public.

There is some truth in that view. Any student of American religion knows that, for generations, the pulpits of major churches played a central role in black culture, a place where strong, prophetic voices could be heard during hard times when they were not welcome in the public square.

Thus, reporters will show up to hear black preachers talk about politics. But is there more to preaching in black churches than mere politics?

Journalists also know that the black church is a powerful force in culture, especially when it comes to music. How does anyone try to tell the story of popular music in America without focusing on the role that gospel musicians played in the birth of blues, jazz, funk and soul music?

So, yes, journalists know that the black church is a powerful force in the arts and in culture. But is there more to the music of African-American churches than that beat, that power and, yes, that soul? What about the content of the songs and hymns?

Now what else is missing in this picture?

I think it’s crucial for reporters to remember that we are, first and foremost, talking about CHURCHES, not political think tanks or concert halls.

Many times, while covering events in black churches over the years, I have heard pastors say something like this: Why is it that reporters always want to talk to me about politics, but the minute I start talking about Jesus they just aren’t interested?

I thought about that this morning while reading The Baltimore Sun obituary for the Rev. Harold A. Carter Sr., pastor at New Shiloh Baptist Church — a truly historic figure in our city on a number of different levels.

What is missing from this obituary? Try to guess.

The story starts strong and then, at a crucial moment, the Sun team simply drops the ball.

The Rev. Dr. Harold A. Carter Sr., senior pastor of the New Shiloh Baptist Church, whose legendary preaching spanned generations and brought him an audience beyond his congregation of 5,000 members, died of cancer Thursday. He was 76.

In 47 years of ministry, Dr. Carter preached with legends of the civil rights era, before his congregation in West Baltimore and to bigger audiences across America and in foreign countries. And for years, his resounding voice could be heard on Sundays on WBAL-Radio.

One sermon more than three decades ago — when he filled 14,000 seats in what is now the 1st Mariner Arena for an evangelistic crusade — still resonates with the Rev. A.C.B. Vaughn, the senior pastor of Sharon Baptist Church and a family friend.

“The greatest sermon he ever gave was his life,” said Vaughn. “Harold Carter was one of the crown jewels. His main thrust was prayer and evangelization. He had a passion for saving souls.”

That’s pretty good. So how does the story follow up on the key elements of his life, which were evangelism, prayer and preaching? By the way, he was also a leader in the evangelical Promise Keepers ministries for men, a major force for racial reconciliation in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.

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