Members of the historic 155 year old Friendship Baptist Church hold services in their new church.
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Moved to make way for Falcons stadium, churches still work to fulfill mission

In Lloyd Hawk’s eyes, the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium is gorgeous, destined to become an icon not only in Atlanta but throughout the South.

But when he looks at the corner of Mitchell Street and Northside Drive, he doesn’t just see the future home of the Atlanta Falcons. He sees weddings and funerals, a place where people went to leave their troubles with God and to celebrate holidays and milestones with neighbors.

Hawk’s church, Friendship Baptist, was one of two houses of worship demolished three years ago to make way for the $1.5 billion stadium.

As metro Atlanta prepares to cheer on its football team in the new state-of-the arts facility later this month — and anticipates the trendy shops and restaurants it might one day attract — those churches are settling into new surroundings, as well.

Friendship and Mount Vernon Baptist Church took diverging paths as they tried to navigate a rapidly changing neighborhood. Friendship decided to stay in the community, with a new place of worship on Walnut Street, just two blocks from where the church stood for more than 100 years. Mount Vernon, on the other hand, moved seven miles west near I-285.

In charting their courses, they came up with different answers to the inevitable questions gentrification brings: Is this yet another example of a city pushing its poorest and most vulnerable communities to the outskirts? Or it is an opportunity to be swept up in a revitalization effort that is transforming a neglected section of town?

JULY 30, 2017 ATLANTA Members march from the site of the old church to the new to attend the first morning worship service at Friendship Baptist Church Sunday, July 30, 2017. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

The Rev. Rodney Turner, pastor of Mount Vernon, said the church’s move reflects the congregation’s feeling that the area around its former home is on the brink of commercialization. It will attract a more well-heeled population with a focus on money and consumerism.

“When all is said and done, that whole Northside Drive corridor is going to be about businesses and restaurants and amphitheaters and football stadiums and tourism,” he said.

It won’t be about corner stores and block parties or community gardens.

The church’s mission, he said, is better served in southwest Atlanta.

Friendship still sees need – and opportunity – in its long-time neighborhood.

About 43 percent of families residing in four neighborhoods near the stadium, including Vine City and English Avenue, live below the poverty line, according to the non-profit Westside Future Fund. The median household income in the area is $24,778, almost half the city average of $48,405.

Since 1960, the population has dropped 60 percent, contributing to abandoned houses and empty lots.

In June, the church filed a plan with the city to construct Friendship Village on 17.5 acres near the new church. The project will include office space, retail and more than 1,000 multi-family units that will provide sorely needed affordable housing.

“As a congregation committed to this community, we felt it very important to address that need,” the Rev. Richard Wills, Friendship’s pastor, said during ceremonies last week celebrating the church’s new home.

The plan is to try to offset some of the impact of the development that he feels certain will come over the next five to seven years.

The Rev. Dr. Richard W. Wills Sr, pastor, participates in the first morning worship service at Friendship Baptist Church Sunday, July 30, 2017. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

The churches moved in 2014 after negotiating deals with the city and the Georgia World Congress Center. The city paid Friendship, the larger and older of the two, $19.5 million, while the GWCC paid Mount Vernon $14.5 million.

Both had hard-scrabble beginnings. Friendship was founded in a box car in the late 1800s, while Mount Vernon was formed in the home of one of its founding members around 1915. And both have invested heavily in the communities around the stadium.

Though seven miles away, Mount Vernon’s Turner said they still remain active in the Vine City area. The church has partnered with community groups that address poverty, drug use and education.

“We are dealing with food and clothing, substance and recovery issues. We’re getting ready to start back working with some of the schools and the youth in that community like we’ve done in the past,” Turner said.

But moving west in April 2014 has allowed the church — which bought Zion Hill Baptist on Lynhurst Drive for $2.5 million, according to Fulton County records — to broaden its outreach in a part of the city so far untouched by gentrification and development. Turner said the old Zion Hill underwent a top to bottom renovation before Mount Vernon, which spent several months worshipping at Carver Bible College after they left their home next to the Georgia Dome, moved in.

The void left by Mount Vernon’s departure is being filled by others.

Usher Jazmine Frear directs parishioners to their seats as members attend the first morning worship service. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Millions of dollars are being poured into neighborhoods adjacent to the stadium that have been plagued in the past with blight and crime.

Westside Works, which has the backing of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, has invested around $20 million so far in job training programs, helped fund a long-sought community center and created a youth leadership project. The Westside Future Fund teamed with Mayor Kasim Reed earlier this year to raise at least $5 million to help residents avoid displacement because of rising housing costs due to the increased desirability of the area. Last month, the Future Fund announced a partnership with Atlanta Public Schools to develop a science, technology, engineering and math program — or STEM — to reach young people.

The old Bible and pulpit from Mount Vernon church were among the items the congregation moved to their new location. The city of Atlanta and the Falcons bought Friendship Baptist Church in 2013 for $19.5 million as part of a plan to construct the retractable-roof Mercedes Benz Stadium just south of the Georgia Dome. In addition to Friendship, Mount Vernon was bought by the Georgia World Congress Center and the Falcons for $14.5 million. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Earlier this year, the city broke ground on a Hard Rock Hotel in Castleberry Hill, while the Georgia World Congress Center is close to an announcement on its plans for a new 800-room hotel to sit on the site of the Georgia Dome — which will be demolished this fall. In addition, a 16-acre park also is under development near Vine City, and many hope it will spur growth on the city’s westside in the same way Old Fourth Ward Park did near the Atlanta Beltline.

David Marvin, one of the first developers to invest downtown when he opened Centennial Olympic Park’s Embassy Suites in 1999, said interest in the area around the stadium is palpable.

“I believe the Blank Foundation and Arthur (Blank’s) vision for the stadium is so grand and so inclusive that it’s going to be a catalyst for a lot of good things for the future,” he said.

Pastor Rodney K. Turner (front row, right) and his wife, LaNett, and church officials Deacon Frank Hall (clockwise from left), Deacon Emeritus Willie Harris, trustee Bessie Streater, Ola Parker, church administrator and church clerk Angela Yarbrough, are shown at the Mount Vernon Baptist Church Wednesday, August 2, 2017. Mount Vernon was one of the two historic congregations that were forced to move to build the new Falcons stadium. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

After worshipping at Morehouse College for the past three years as their new home was being built, Friendship’s congregation celebrated its first service at its new church at 80 Walnut Street last week.

“We felt like this place afforded us the best opportunity to come in and be able to be in a neighborhood and a community that had young and old where we could continue our ministry,” Wills said.

Friendship, which spent $4.3 million on the land alone for its new church, said its new facility will allow it to host more weddings, develop a culinary program that will help bring a food ministry to the community and to unveil a museum next to its chapel for those who want to learn about the church’s history.

Trent Floyd, 44, was baptized at the old Friendship Church as were his two children. His mother’s funeral was held there. And when he was a tyke, his family lived in Friendship Apartments, owned by the church.

So it’s no surprise, he said, that he had to have one of the bricks from the original building. His wife gave it to him as a Father’s Day gift two years ago.

“I sat there and watched it come down and tears, honestly, came to my eyes,” he said of the church’s demolition.

Hapibah Jones, 4, and her brother, Kojo, 7, sit with their parents, Agai and Vuyani Jones, as they attend the first morning worship service at Friendship Baptist Church Sunday, July 30, 2017. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC
Photo: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Even though the new Friendship Baptist is an improvement in many ways, church members say there’s plenty to miss about the old building.

Faith Hawthorne, 18, Amelia Green, 14, Kimora Carr, 13, and Eryn Boone, 14, said they will miss a tiny room above the sanctuary at the old church that they had claimed as their own. While the new building has a children’s wing that wasn’t offered at the old church, it won’t be the same.

“It was really special for us because it was our own little sanctuary,” said Green. “… It was our place.”

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