Rev. Joseph Roberts wasn’t prepared for all the adulation he was receiving as he glided down the aisle of a church in the northern New Jersey city in which he had been named pastor of a small Presbyterian congregation a mere two weeks earlier. It was a stirring and soon-to be embarrassing Moment for the man who would later follow Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. in the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
In a city of relatively few historically significant buildings, Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church stands as a touchstone to American history: the birthplace of the civil rights movement that changed the course of our region and nation.
Upon his own retirement in 1975 and seven years after the assassination of his son and co-pastor (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), “Daddy” King personally anointed “Rev. Joe” to succeed him as senior pastor of the downtown Atlanta congregation. It was an unexpected choice. Rev Joe, a Chicago native and Princeton graduate, had not previously served in a Baptist congregation such as Ebenezer and was then working in an administrative leadership role with the Presbyterian church in Atlanta. The choice proved, however, to be a wise one.
Rev. Joe served for 30 years as senior pastor, expanding the congregation by more than 2,000 members and increasing financial giving by 300 percent. He led the church in a somewhat controversial move from the historic 1915 “heritage” sanctuary to a soaring, larger “horizon” sanctuary a few hundred yards away in 1999. The move allowed the 124-year-old congregation to increase its services and ministry while preserving the cozy historic sanctuary as a very popular tourist destination.
I visited Ebenezer for Sunday services in 1995 and recounted in a newspaper column then how taken I was by the enthusiasm with which we were welcomed and how impressed I was that Rev. Joe quickly recovered from the malfunction of his pulpit’s microphone. Undeterred, the senior pastor roamed the aisles and delivered his rousing sermon up close and personal. I also remembered and reminded Rev. Joe during our recent Moments interview in the historic chapel that about halfway through his sermon, a strong smell of frying chicken wafted up into the sanctuary from the basement kitchen. “I call that the devil,” he said, laughing. “Another way to distract people from good biblical preaching!”
While Rev. Joe is enjoying his retirement, he is still active in the Ebenezer Community, teaches a seminar at Columbia Theological Seminary, serves on the board of Grady Hospital and is a real-time blogger via the Higher Ground website (click here).
Rev. Joe’s Moment occurred in 1964, walking down that aisle in New Jersey at the request of fellow pastor Bill Gray, who had assembled a large procession to enter the church before Dr. King had been scheduled to speak to the assembled throng. Bill, who had been a classmate of Joe’s at Princeton and later served in Congress and led the United Negro College Fund, became annoyed as Rev. Joe slowed the procession down.
“When I got in line with this mob of clergy people, a long procession, I didn’t pay attention to who was in front or nor could I see who was behind,” Rev. Joe said in our accompanying video. “As we came down the main aisle, people were cheering and they got up each time I passed a seat. And I said to myself, ‘My God, how did I make such an indelible impression in the first two weeks of my ministry in this place?’
“As I was slowing the line up to receive the adulation of the crowd, Bill Gray got to me and said, ‘Joe Roberts – get out of he way! You are slowing up everything! Dr. King is right behind you!’ ”
Humbled, Rev. Joe quickly found his seat and listened as Dr. King regaled the crowd with his singular soaring voice and message of hope and non-violence. Little did he know then, that while he had led Dr. King down the aisle that day, he would later follow him in the pulpit of his own church in Atlanta 11 years later.
Looking back, Rev. Joe found significance in that and other Moments we all face in life.
“That let me know that what I thought was important wasn’t that important,” he said. “I was walking in front of Dr. King. And thinking about all the things he had done and realizing that later on, I might have the opportunity of following him after his assassination at Ebenezer Baptist Church, that’s the thing that really moved me. So that I saw that things in life that happen over which we have no control – the significance of which we do not realize in the present Moment – and it told me you need to be aware and be sensitive to people around you because there might be angels unaware.”
Next week in Moments: Brad Cunard, who instantly lost his wife and two children in one Moment when a tree fell on the car he was driving down N. Highland Ave. on July 10, 2003.
Don’t miss previous Moments from Season Two: Solon Patterson, Charles Ackerman,Santa Claus, Mark McDonald, Frank Skinner, Tom Murphy, Matt Arnett, Kasim Reed, Alana Shepherd, Charles Driebe, Hank Aaron, Kevin Rathbun, Larrie Del Martin, Mike Luckovich, Dan Matthews.
Don’t miss previous Moments from Season One: Arthur Blank, Doug Hertz, Thomas Dimitroff, Jenny Levison, Brad Cunard, Joe Roberts, Plemon El-Amin, Bob Williams, Gary Price, John Dewberry, Bill Tush, Milton Little, Hope Arbery, Bo Jackson, Lisa Borders, Tom Key, Bob Voyles, Joyce Fownes, Joel Babbit, John Pruitt, Noel Khalil, Chuck Leavell, Bill Nigut, Eveylyn Winn-Dixon, Steve Nygren, Chris White, Josh Starks, Ryan Gravel, Shirley Franklin, Sam Massell and Clark Howard.
Video by Reid Childers of Eyesome Productions.