By Maria Saporta
Amid tears, hugs and laughs, members of the Friendship Baptist Church congregation said good-bye to their historic home on Sunday during a service that celebrated their legacy while they vowed for an even stronger future.
As people came to the church Sunday morning, they could not ignore the change that was taking place. Just a few weeks ago, their neighbor — Mt. Vernon Baptist Church — stood across Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Today, both Mt. Vernon and the street are gone — turned into red dirt leading straight up to the Georgia Dome that too will face the wrecking ball when the new Atlanta Falcons stadium will be built on the site of where Friendship stands today.
Rev. William Guy, pastor emeritus, was invited to give the last sermon in the historic church, which has stood on that sacred ground at the intersection of Mitchell Street and Northside Drive since 1871.
“If you are like me, you are full of emotion,” Guy said. “For some like me, this day is bittersweet. For most of us, it is a time of sadness. Grieving is among us.”
The pastor then went through the stages of grief, acknowledging that everyone might be at different individual stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
“What we are experiencing is nostalgia,” said Rev. Guy, explaining that the Greek origins of the word are “home” and pain” — “the pain of not being able to go home.”
They could not ignore that sadness.
“Church members and members of the communities, we realize that soon the bulldozer will do the work as it has for our neighbor Mt. Vernon,” Rev. Guy said. “What a shock when I saw the whole building gone, but we are here, and we are thankful to be here. This is not a pity party.”
The program called Sunday the “Transitioning Service.” The message: “Remembering Our Heritage; Embracing Our Future: (John 3:1-8,; Revelation 21:1-7)”
Rev. Guy titled his sermon: “The Constant Amid Change.” He joked about the older gentleman who was asked by a reporter about all the change he had seen in his lifetime. “Yes, and I’ve been against all of it.”
Rev. Guy, who was Friendship’s pastor from 1971 to 2007, said this is the second time in two decades that the church has had to make a major decision about its future. The first time — when the Georgia Dome was being built — Friendship decided to stay, adjust to its new neighbor and renovate. This time, church leaders reached a different decision. They were helped along with a $19.5 million offer from the Atlanta Falcons to buy their property.
“We’ve tried to keep before us that the church is more than the building. The church is the people,” Rev. Guy said. “The community of faith is made up of living souls, not bricks and mortar. There’s nothing wrong to be attached to a place or a building or a thing.”
Friendship started 150 years ago by 25 former slaves who came together to form the congregation with the help of white Christians. Over the years, “nine daughter churches have been born of this congregation,” including Wheat Street Baptist Church and Providence Baptist Church. Two of the historically black colleges began in the basement of Friendship — Morehouse College and Spelman College.
Churches go through challenging times,” Rev. Guy said.
This is certainly a challenging time for Friendship as it works acquire land for a permanent location; as it moves to temporary quarters (the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse for Sunday services and Providence for its offices); as it plans to build its new home; and as it searches for new pastor to succeed Emmanuel McCall Sr. its interim minister.
Those are a lot of issues for Friendship to deal with, but Rev. Guy said that with God’s guidance, he was sure the church was up to the tasks.
Rev. Guy said that it was important for the church to face the move — “not with a sense of loss or resistance but with a sense of a new day, a sense of a opportunity, and sense to serve God with whatever resources that have come to you,”
And as they leave their historic home, Rev. Guy told members of the congregation that “we are taking with us the spirits of those who have moved before us.”
As members gathered in the Fellowship Hall, many were still trying to cope with having to say good-bye.
Henrietta Antonin said she has good days and bad days. Billye Aaron and Rubye Lucas still were having a hard time believing that this day had come. Several dignitaries had come for the final service, including former Morehouse College President Robert Franklin; City Councilman Ivory Young; civil rights leaders James Bond and Juanita Abernathy; and Maynard “Buzzy” Jackson III, whose grandfather was the church’s pastor from 1945 to 1953.
Many people kept looking around the church hoping that precious memories would be moved to the new location.
“I hope they will take the cornerstone with the names of all the pastors on it,” Jackson said.
Better yet, the Atlanta Falcons would be well served to incorporate a plaque in Friendship’s honor to acknowledge the incredible history that took place on the site of the new stadium before it became a gathering place for football and soccer.