Caption

Father Austin Ford of Emmaus House

For 24 years, an Episcopal priest from the Northside has lived and worked among Atlanta's inner-city poor, fighting forjustice, helping people help themselves

Capitol Avenue, in the shadow of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, is the kind of place that inspired the automatic car-door lock. 

Vacant lots, choked with garbage and kudzu, stand near burned-out buildings and unpainted shacks. Storefronts are few, but the crack trade is brisk. A fire hydrant pours water down nearby Crew Street, where children and teenagers seek relief from the sweltering heat.  

But between Capitol and Crew, near the Haygood intersection, the landscape suddenly changes. Here is an oasis of manicured gardens, where lilies and roses scent the air. It is a place where black and white work together, where poor children are fed and educated, where the elderly enjoy a safe haven, where the disenfranchised find an organization with political clout. 

This is Emmaus House, the home of Father Austin Ford, an Episcopal minister some people call a saint and others call the unprintable. His enemies, who are many, fought his steady efforts to integrate Atlanta's schools, to organize tenant groups and campaign for welfare rights. He's still raising hackles as he stands in the path of the Olympic juggernaut, fighting the 85,000-seat stadium that organizers plan to plunk down, like the other shoe, right in his back yard.  

A  sign in Peoplestown from 2017. (For the AJC)

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Recommended for you

Most read

  1. 1 Officer in critical condition after shooting; suspect in custody
  2. 2 Atlanta college receives huge philanthropic gift
  3. 3 Man dies after being shot at Atlantic Station

The stadium, he says, does not belong. But Father Ford, 62, a refugee from a middle-class Northside church, seems a bit out of place himself. His Oxfordian diction and faultless manners are better suited for taking tea with the British peerage - which he occasionally does - than for lying in front of garbage trucks during sanitation strikes - though he's done that, too. 

The 125 neighborhood kids summering in North Georgia courtesy of Emmaus House aren't put off by this aristocratic presence. "Father Ford!" they shout, and cling to his arms and legs, as the priest and his dog, Cleopatra, arrive at the Cave Spring camp for a visit.  

"They think the pope and all his retinue have arrived," he jokes, as several campers throw themselves into his lap. "He's nice and everybody loves him," 11-year-old John Kendricks says.  

Living with the poor 

During the 24 years he's lived in one of Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods, steeping in African-American culture, the Rev. Austin Ford has remained resiliently himself, while his surroundings have subtly come to reflect the Ford personality. Emmaus House regulars, many of whom are on welfare, have attended slide shows on European architectural landmarks. The Rev. Ford ferries neighborhood children to rehearsals of the Atlanta Boy Choir, and Emmaus boys have toured Europe and sung before the pope.  

Peoplestown resident Sherise Brown fixes a sign that reads “Community not Commodity” that had been knocked down by the weather outside Turner Field in 2017. J. Scott Trubey/strubey@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The Emmaus chapel is not lavish, but the Rev. Ford's hand is evident there too, in such details as the silver processional cross, carved in the Coptic style by Ethiopian artisans, and the Christmas altar cloth, embroidered by English seamstresses with a black Nativity scene. "He has an eye for beauty," says Cary Patrick, director of communication for the Atlanta diocese of the Episcopal church, "and he thinks everybody ought to be able to participate in that. It's not just something for rich folks." 

Of course rich folks have a place in Emmaus House, too, and that's where the Rev. Ford's polished manner pays off. He will raise more than $90,000 for this year's summer camp programs. He spearheaded the raising of about $1.6 million to build the Study Hall.  

"He's good at using white guilt to extract large sums of money from white Episcopalians," says longtime supporter John Huey, an Atlanta writer and a senior editor at Fortune magazine. 

Rich and poor are present during a recent Sunday service at Emmaus House chapel, where the ceremony is a mix of black and white, the staid Episcopal liturgy enlivened with "Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham" and "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?"  

The priest, who ably substitutes for a missing piano player, later discusses a Deuteronomy verse on economics, which he wryly calls "the first Communist Manifesto." After the offering, a black woman in a straw hat stands at her pew, and in a rich alto croons an unaccompanied "The Storm Is Passing Over." This is Ethel Mae Matthews, an anti-stadium activist who announces her allegiance to the struggle and contempt for any "payoffs" offered by the Olympic committee. 

Afterward, there are cookies and punch among the Rev. Ford's hydrangeas and flowering quince. 

Preaching and picketing 

Born of cotton growers on land just outside Decatur, the young Austin Ford often played with the son of a black tenant farmer on his grandfather's property. As a divinity school student at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., he became aware of the greater forces that would propel him toward a doctorate and keep his playmate in the fields. 

In 1952, during young Ford's senior year, the Sewanee trustees voted to bar black students from the school, sending convulsions through the Episcopal church. Half the Sewanee students transferred in protest; nine faculty members resigned. The Very Rev. James Pike of New York shamed Sewanee before the nation, refusing an honorary degree with the statement that he didn't want letters in "white divinity."  

Austin Ford stayed to graduate, but he was radicalized. In the mid- 1950s, as an assistant rector at St. Luke's and then as the first rector of St. Bartholomew's from 1955-67, he ministered to his congregations while he worked steadily for social justice. 

"He was preaching every Sunday on our relationship with the blacks," says St. Bartholomew member Becky Moser, who remembers the priest of those years as a great leader who decked the new church in beauty, from the silver chalices to the Ford-designed font.  

Yet his picketing of the then-segregated Lovett School (which has ties to the Episcopal church), his sponsorship of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee meetings, and his anti-Vietnam war stance outraged some in the predominantly white, middle-class congregation. "Some people just got fed up to the teeth and left," says Mrs. Moser. 

Former church member William N. Morrison says, "He went on the Selma march, and I was furious with him. . . . I was opposed to him making a spectacle of himself, going off as a minister of the church." Dr. Morrison later changed his mind, and with his wife, Mary, followed the Rev. Ford downtown to become a communicant at Emmaus House. "He was right," he concludes.  

The Rev. Don Harrison, of St. Joseph's in McDonough, says, "Austin is what we call a prophet." 

"The church was abandoning the inner city" at the time, the Rev. Ford recalled, while he led Episcopal clergy in pushing the diocese to work in Atlanta's deteriorating core. Eventually Bishop Randolph R. Claiborne had heard enough. "He said, 'If you're going to do it, you do it,' " the Rev. Ford says. "By that time I was the only one left [among the agitators]." 

Making the move 

The neighborhood he picked was Summerhill, the site of a bloody race riot in 1966 where police patrolled the streets in armored vehicles, shotguns at the ready. The following year he bought a $2-a-night flophouse at 1017 Capitol Ave. with support from the diocese and private donations. The Rev. Ford remembers that Sister Mary Joseph, one of two nuns who helped him get started, puffed a cigar while she mopped to mask the stench.  

That same year Watts burned on national television. Blacks and whites were, if anything, more polarized than ever. Black leaders told him they didn't need his help, and directed him to stay on the Northside. 

The Rev. Ford persevered.  

An aerial view of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on October 17, 1993. It would be demolished four years later. (Rich Addicks)

RELATED

Photos of Atlanta in 1968

Photos of Atlanta in 1993

"He just leaned out his window and said 'Hello! Hello!' " says Mrs. Matthews, whom the Rev. Ford met and invited to a welfare rights meeting. "That was my turning point," she says. "From that night on I've been preaching and teaching to my people." 

The Rev. Ford found volunteers among his well-connected friends in Buckhead, but he also secured help in the community he served. Columbus Ward, now 37 and staff director at Emmaus House, grew up on nearby Washington Street, and enjoyed the mission's teenager programs 20 years ago, going on field trips and attending dances.  

The priest is sensitive to the subtle bigotry of the stereotyped white missionary - as if inner-city blacks need a white man to save them -- and stresses the community roots of all Emmaus House action. "Black people," he adds, "are fed up with white heroes." 

Keeping up the fight 

But Father Ford is no condescending savior, says Mr. Ward, because Emmaus House programs "didn't just come from him. They came from the neighborhood. Like the senior teenage program. He didn't come in and say, 'I'm going to have this program for the teenagers.' Our parents wanted it, and he just mainly provides the resources to help keep it going."  

On the other hand, this lifelong bachelor has a steely independence that neither his parishioners nor his high-powered friends will compromise. "He's his own boss," says Clarence Ezzard Sr., 86-year-old Summerhill resident, "and . . . he likes that." 

At least one community organizer thinks the Rev. Ford likes it too much. "[Emmaus House activists] have chosen to isolate themselves from other advocates in the community," says the organizer, requesting anonymity. "Austin has an approach to social change that is very confrontive. He tends to prefer the fight to the victory." 

Any victory in Summerhill seems a fleeting possibility. 

Today, after 24 years of steady work by Emmaus House and its crowd of supporters, nearly everyone agrees that conditions in Summerhill and Peoplestown are drastically worse, aggravated by highway construction and the Model Cities program, which grabbed land and displaced poor people. "Social forces far beyond the little candle he burns have been destructive in the neighborhood," volunteer Muriel Lokey says.  

Yet the redoubtable Rev. Ford seems inspired by the insurmountable, which may explain why, during a recent trip to India - one of his few self-indulgences - he visited the mission directed by Mother Teresa. "It was so wonderful to see people dealing with an impossible situation, and not giving up or losing heart." 

More from AJC