It’s altar call and the Rev. David F. Richards III, dressed in a flowing white and gold embroidered grand boubou, invites members of New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church to pray.
For those who cannot kneel at the altar, he walks to them and prays with them or sends the associate minister, who holds one man’s hand as he bows his head.
They don’t have to raise their hands. He knows his congregation well enough to know when there’s need for prayer.
It’s that kind of closeness that has kept members like Melanie Few coming back to the historic 150-year-old Buckhead church Sunday after Sunday.
Her great-grandparents went there. So did her grandmother and her father, who once attended the church school that ran from first through seventh grade.
“I think there are still people in Atlanta that desire a family feel when they come to church,” said Few, the founder and executive producer of the NFL Super Bowl Gospel Celebration. “Here, if you come for a while and then stop coming, people will call you and see if you’re OK or bring you a meal. It’s the love that is shown on a personal level.”
That extends to the Richards, who regularly checks on members.
“A church with 30,000 members, they can’t do that,” Few said.
On Sunday, the small, immaculately kept white-painted wooden church that sits tucked away surrounded by high-end homes, was packed as people gathered to celebrate the church’s 150th anniversary. Well wishes came from U.S. Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga.; former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, now president of the Buckhead Coalition; and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
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The church has a weekly attendance of betwen 50 and 75 people with 130 people on the rolls. Worshippers range in age from 96 to 3 months, about 40 percent of them are senior citizens. White residents from nearby neighborhoods regularly attend.
“The spirit in this church is awesome,” said Richards, 58, who grew up a military brat and became senior pastor of the Arden Road church about two years ago. “Some are quiet, but they will shout ‘Glory’ to the living God and that motivates a preacher.”
Atlanta is home to well-known megachurches, so how does a small church like New Hope compete?
“I’m not competing with them because we’re on the same team,” he said. “However, they’re using means of modern technology to enhance their worship experience, but when the rubber meets the road, it’s about good old-fashioned Bible study, church school, gospel-filled preaching, Holy Ghost-filled services and I’ll put our choir up against any choir.”
Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District, said the spirit of New Hope is an example of what needs to happen in houses of worship today, especially as studies show younger people don’t feel connected to organized religion.
“New Hope, as you celebrate this 150th anniversary, make sure you pass down the faith,” he said. “So that our children know the way that God has brought us.”
He said he was happy to hear babies and young children making noise during the service, which showed a new generation was coming into Christ.
Churches close their doors every day, he said. Few churches survive to make it to 150. Historically, the New Hope congregation has survived Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the national struggle for civil rights, wars fought overseas, the Great Recession, the Great Depression, yet it is still standing.
The bloodlines of those who have worshipped together goes back generations since its founding in 1869 by emancipated slaves.
The property, which was later donated by James “Whispering” Smith, a wealthy white landowner, and includes a cemetery, school and parsonage that’s now used as a life center.
Smith died in 1872 — eight days after signing his will, which gave the land to the congregation.
Founded as the New Hope Camp Ground, services were held outside until a building could be erected. African-Americans came from all over Georgia and the site became a center for spiritual and social life.
According to the Buckhead Heritage Society, both the cemetery and church are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. More than 300 people are buried in the cemetery with space for about two more graves, said Richards.
The church has been used to film scenes from four movies, including “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
At 91, retired teacher and former president of the Atlanta teachers’ credit union, Moses C. Few is one of the oldest members of the historic church.
At the time, many of the members worked for weathly white families. The maids, the bulters, cooks and farmworkers.
Few, one of 12 children, grew up not far away on Northside Drive and walked to the school, which was on church grounds next to the sanctuary.
“One things the teachers did was to help us think positive,” he said.
Another longtime member, Josephine Irby, tried to name all the pastors who have led the small congregation before finally giving up with a chuckle.
“You’ll have to just look at the roster,” she said. At 82, Irby, a retired housekeeper and nurses’ aide, still makes service most Sundays.
“I’ll be there until the day I die,” she said. “I just love it. I’ve gotten all my love, I’ve gotten all my knowledge and sharing and caring from New Hope.”
Former gubernatorial candidate Clay Tippins lives next door to the church. He and his family have been there for church cookouts. They’ve attended services.
If they expected stares, the conservative white family didn’t get them.
He said the love and spirit of the congregation is welcoming to everyone regardless of race or religious affiliation.
“We don’t feel like the people who live next door,” he said. “We feel ilke part of the family.”
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