Reflections on Sunday morning as two black churches ponder their future

By Maria Saporta

Two black Baptist churches face each other across Martin Luther King Jr. Drive — symbolizing a great divide mixed with a great opportunity — not only for themselves but for the community at large.

Both churches are in the middle of one of the biggest stories of the year — the proposed $1 billion retractable roof Atlanta Falcons football stadium

It’s Sunday morning at 10 a.m. as members of Friendship Baptist Church gather for Communion Sunday.  The theme on the church bulletin states: “Remembering our heritage; Embracing our future: (John 3:1-8; Revelation 21:1-7).

Friendship Baptist Church

Friendship Baptist Church

The congregation includes respected Atlanta leaders — many of whom have a multi-generational history with Friendship — a church that was established in 1862 and organized in 1866.

A well-dressed choir sings beautifully accompanied by the church’s organist — Kenneth Wynn.

Across the street, Mount Vernon Baptist Church begins its worship service at 10:30 a.m. The tone and atmosphere in the church is markedly differently from Friendship.

The church is filled with a beat of drummer with a full drum set and a gospel choir that has members of its congregation standing and clapping and at times holding their hands up in the air to welcome the Lord.

At first, it feels as though the membership is sparse, but as the service continues, more members — many accompanied with their children — straggle in.

The church bulletin has a more provocative message: “Taking Care of Kingdom Business.”

Just this week, it was disclosed that Mount Vernon was asking the Georgia World Congress Center Authority $20.375 million for its property by the GWCCA had given Mount Vernon its “best and final offer” of $6.2 million. The $14 million gap with Mount Vernon was seen as a key reason as to why the Atlanta Falcons and GWCCA announced their intention to go to a less-desirable site a half-mile away.

So going to both churches on Sunday provided an opportunity to get an insider’s view of the mood within each one.

About a half-hour into the service at Friendship, Lloyd Hawk, chairman of the church’s board of trustees, gave the congregation an update on the negotiations with the city and the Falcons.

Plaque in front of Friendship Baptist Church

Plaque in front of Friendship Baptist Church

Hawk said the situation has been changing daily and that the church had finally received an official offer from the city and the Falcons. It was not close enough to make a deal, but it was close enough to continue negotiations.

“On Thursday, the GWCC announced they had broken off negotiations with Mount Vernon,” Hawk said. “We were quickly informed that they would like to continue negotiations with us.”

Hawk then went on to say that the last offer the city made was unacceptable because it would not permit Friendship to live up to its mission of serving the needs of the church as well as the broader community.

“Once we have received what we believe is the best and final offer, we ill bring that back to the congregation,” Hawk said.

At Mount Vernon, the tone was quite different.

Towards the beginning of the service, one of the ministers informed the congregation that on Tuesday, Aug. 13, there will be a “Special Call Church Family Meeting” at 6:30 p.m.” to provide an update on discussions with the Georgia World Congress Center. The meeting was being held to dispel rumors that were being told about the church, the minister said.

Another deduction is that the talks between Mount Vernon and GWCCA may not be completely dead — otherwise, why would the congregation need to hold a specially-called family meeting?

But the sermon by Rev. R.K. Turner certainly left a different impression.

In a passionate, poetic sermon, Turner weaved in religious verses with football analogies mixed in with the Falcons’ motto of “Rise Up” with the line “I believe I can fly” — all urging the church to not give up.

The verses were about an everlasting God giving power to the faint. “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary and they walk, and not faint.”

Mount Vernon Baptist Church with Georgia Dome in background (Photos by Maria Saporta)

Mount Vernon Baptist Church with Georgia Dome in background (Photos by Maria Saporta)

At times it was hard to tell if Rev. Turner was talking about the church’s negotiations with GWCCA or the plight of the poor in the African American community.

“Just hold your position. Don’t panic. Don’t develop a loser’s mentality,” Turner said. “God will give power to the people who have no money. When you’ve just about exhausted all you have got, God gave you a second wind.”

Later, there was no question about who he was talking about.

“God is going to give you what you need to rise above your suffering,” Turner said. “You can’t let the enemy dictate your steps. Steps are ordered by God…. God is in control. Neither do you have to yield to the force of evil.”

Turner also acknowledged that he had gotten some heat because of the church’s position.

“I got a phone call. A man asked: ‘What’s wrong with y’all.’ I said: ‘What?’ Who are y’all?’” Turner said, later quoting City Councilman Ivory Young who said that because Mount Vernon did not dance to the beat to somebody else’s drum, it was going to hurt the city. “’What’s wrong with y’all? What’s wrong with that black church down there? Why won’t they deal with those folks?’”

Then Turner reminded the congregation that Mount Vernon isn’t the only church with an important history, and its legacy also has value.

“This is holy ground,” Turner said. “If you trust God enough, God will do what he says he will do… He will make a way out of no way….
“I believe I can fly. Believe in the power of God that I can Rise Up, that I can fly, lift me in all my troubles,” Turner added. “Don’t you worry. Don’t you get nervous. Folks don’t care anything about this church. All they want is a story. They don’t care about this church.”

That was Sunday morning on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Northside Drive. Two churches. Two negotiations. Two approaches. Two styles. Two different messages.

The question continues to be whether there will be a split decision and a failed transaction leading to the wrong site being chosen.

Or will the two churches be able to find peace — in their own separate ways — with the opportunities that sit at their doorsteps and with the opportunities that will best for the surrounding communities and for Atlanta as a whole.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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