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

Members mourn Atlanta church; why don’t they talk? July 30, 2014

When 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.)

The article notes ironically that the church is being displaced by the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium, although the previous stadium was built only in 1992 and Friendship Baptist was born just after the Civil War. A sensitive passage has people weeping or “pumping a fist to the music” as the pipe organ plays — an organ that was recently refurbished for $300,000.

What’s missing, then? People: what they did, what they felt, what they thought of the move. Their memories of the baptisms, the weddings, the baby dedications and yes, the funerals. So the reporter saw judges, politicians, educators and entrepreneurs in the congregation? Like whom? What do they remember from their time there? What do they think of the move? What did they say?

There was so much more to tell about the reach of this church. So Morehouse College was nurtured in the basement there? Well, Morehouse in turn educated Julian Bond, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — a prime mover in civil rights in the 1960s. The Times story would have gained from showing how Friendship Church was a grandmother to civil rights.

What would Morehouse or Spelman educators say about the passing of their old home? How did Friendship affect the development of their colleges? And how about the nine other churches that Friendship founded, according to the article? I’ll bet their leaders would have been happy to talk.

And why was Friendship to be torn down? The Times says it was “one of two churches whose multimillion dollar relocation/reconstruction tab will be covered by the city.” But it bizarrely adds that the church “found itself in the path of bulldozers that will raze the Georgia Dome as its replacement rises next door.” What on earth does that mean? The bulldozers had no choice but to plow through the church enroute to the stadium?

The best part of the story is the pictures: a set of 16 in an evocative slide show. Some of them are archival pictures from the church’s history. Others, by photographer Kevin Liles, show tearful congregants hugging, worshiping and praying, and Pastor Emeritus William Guy solemnly removing his robe after the final sermon.

Actually, the photos may be the main reason for the vagaries. Buried in the seventh paragraph of this 10-paragraph story, the Times says that the farewell service was in late May, even though this story was published only on July 28. The only new time angle was that the building was to be demolished as early as Monday. I wonder if someone found the photos and decided to run them, even though the story had gotten cold.

Perhaps the Times thought the people and history were covered in a link to a story from April 22. That story has more satisfying detail (and twice the length). It explains the stew of sports, politics, business and urban planning that resulted in the church agreeing to move (although the piece doesn’t say what the final dollar sign was).

Here’s how the planners think:

The new stadium, to be run by a state agency, would be a shining link in a chain that connects the city’s massive convention center, the Georgia World Congress Center and Centennial Olympic Park. And it is the best hope for securing a Super Bowl and a major league soccer team, supporters say.

And here’s how some church folks think:

“You’re going to disrupt two churches, two houses of worship and prayer, for someone to play ball?” Juanita Jones Abernathy said before a recent service. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Mrs. Abernathy, BTW, is the widow of the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, another civil rights pioneer. I wonder if she was at that final service, too?

One gaffe in the April article, though: It says Friendship’s pipe organ is “rare in Southern Baptist churches.” Friendship is affiliated with three church movements, but the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t one of them.

But for sensitivity, it’s the equal of the Times story this week; and for a full treatment, it’s the better story. Even with the link, it would have helped to drop a couple of background paragraphs in the later piece.

The Friendship members strike me as wise, enduring people. The April article notes that some of them took the move in stride: “A church, they said, is made up of its people and not a building.”

Exactly. And people think and feel and talk. In covering the farewell service, the Times should let them express themselves.

Picture: Friendship Baptist Church, from its Facebook page.

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