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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Friendship Baptist Church holds final service in historic building before stadium demolition

Friendship Baptist Church, where Morehouse College was founded, will move to campus until new home is found
  • Joeff Davis/CL File
  • Friendship Baptist Church, where Morehouse College was founded, will move to campus until new home is found
"This is not a pity party, and I'm not going to make it one," the Rev. William Guy said on May 25 as he opened what was termed a "transitioning" service at Friendship Baptist Church, the city's oldest African-American Baptist church.

With TV news trucks parked out front and police directing traffic that overflowed onto surrounding streets, it was clearly no ordinary Sunday. In the shadow of the Georgia Dome and across the street from the hole in the ground where Mt. Vernon Baptist Church stood until it was demolished in March, Friendship Baptist held its last service in the circa 1871 building. In July the church will be razed to make way for the new Atlanta Falcons stadium. And the congregation will start its next chapter.

Guy's sermon focused on the inevitability of change, whether for better or worse. Joking, he said, "If you don't believe in change, just look in the mirror." He encouraged the congregation to view the loss of its home in a positive light. His words brought tears and laughter. An air of resignation was buoyed by the message of resilience and optimism. Midway through the sermon, Reverend Guy broke into impromptu song with the gospel hymn "I Thank You Jesus," which includes the refrain, "You've brought me from a mighty, a mighty long way, a mighty long way." The entire congregation joined in. "The church is more than the building, it is the people," he said.

Friendship Baptist was founded in 1862 by 25 former slaves with the assistance of a white congregation in Cincinnati that provided a boxcar for its services. Over the past 150 years, the church has helped give birth to nine congregations throughout the city.

But the church's role in the advancement of educating African Americans is one of its most compelling stories. The first classes of Atlanta University were held here in 1865, and in 1879 a small school in Augusta moved to Atlanta and established itself in Friendship Baptist's basement. That school is now Morehouse College. In 1881, Spelman College also started classes in the church's basement.

Guy, who served as pastor from 1971 to 2007, recalled that this isn't the first time the congregation has had to make adjustments to accommodate the city's NFL franchise. More than 20 years ago, as the Falcons moved into their current location, the church moved its services and Sunday programs earlier so church-goers could leave before football fans descended on the area. "We got used to the Dome," he said to congregants. "We can do it again."

As CL went to press, the city and Friendship Baptist were waiting to hear whether their joint bid to purchase a large portion of the Morris Brown College campus was selected. If things go as planned, Friendship Baptist will take the sites occupied by the college gymnasium and Middleton Towers, the former dormitories. Plans call for a new church building on Mitchell Street, just a few blocks from Friendship Baptist's existing location. In the coming weeks, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and Invest Atlanta will announce the recipients of grants for development projects in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Friendship Baptist will hold interim services, appropriately enough, at Morehouse College while the church plots its future. Its office will set up temporary quarters at Providence Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta. Lloyd Hawk, Friendship Baptist's trustee board chairman, said when asked how he felt about the move that he "[liked] to think of this period as the beginning of the next 150 years."

As the congregation filed out, several longtime members talked about the sadness of losing the church. A man added that "the best days of Friendship are ahead of us." A woman said "amen."

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