Rev. Joseph Roberts, 79: King successor helped church grow, reach out

Hand picked by the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., Joseph Roberts led Ebenezer Baptist Church as its pastor for 30 years.

“He cared for people and put them first,” said his wife, Esther Jean Roberts. “He believed in serving his congregation. He was a pastor who took care of his people.”

“After my father passed Dr. Roberts was right there,” said Christine King Farris, daughter of Martin Luther King Sr. “That was such a blessing.”

Born in Chicago, Roberts attended that city’s public schools throughout his childhood and graduated cum laude from Knoxville College in 1956. He received a master’s degree in divinity from the Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the 1960s. He then attended Princeton Theological Seminary, where he earned a master’s in theology.

Before coming to Ebenezer, Roberts worked in various administrative positions in the Presbyterian church and was pastor of Weequahic Presbyterian Church and Elmwood United Presbyterian Church in New Jersey.

In the early 1970s, Roberts became senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. Under Roberts’ leadership, more than 2,000 members were added to the congregation and financial giving increased more than 300 percent.

“He came to pastorate at a very critical time,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer’s current pastor and Roberts’ successor. “It was just seven years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. His father Martin Luther King Sr. was retiring. The question looming over Ebenezer was, ‘what’s next?’ and he stood in the gap.”

His sermons were timely and he led with the message that “there is a difference between church work and work of the church,” said his wife. “Church work is what is done within the four walls of the church and work of the church is doing for people outside those four walls; work of the church is what we’re really called to do.”

Roberts launched a community outreach program that included the teenage mothers ministry, tutoring and counseling programs, a food co-op and a day care center for older adults. He envisioned a new sanctuary for the growing membership.

“Dr. Roberts knew we had outgrown that space,” said Farris. “I think he did a great job making that move.”

In 1999, the building of the Horizon Sanctuary was completed. The 32,000-square-foot sanctuary seats 2,446 people.

The Rev.Joseph L. Roberts Jr. of Atlanta died Sunday of congestive heart failure. He was 79. A funeral will be 12 p.m. Saturday at Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary, 101 Jackson St., Atlanta. Willie A. Watkins Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

“Every time he went somewhere he was leading something, and I would always think to myself, ‘that’s my brother’,” said his sister-in-law Jacqueline Michael. “I was the littler sister and he was such a wonderful example for me, for my life.”

“As a new pastor coming in, he embraced me, he was generous,” said Warnock. “I was mindful of the important work he did as I took stock. He was a preacher’s preacher and a preacher’s teacher.”

Roberts was a recipient of five honorary doctor of divinity degrees as well as awards from Union Theological Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary. In 2006, Roberts published a collection of sermons titled “Sideswiped by Eternity: Sermons from Ebenezer Baptist Church.” More recently, he was honored by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference in 2014 and was a founder of the Higher Ground Group 2010 t0 2015, an interdenominational group of Atlanta faith leaders raising awareness of issues affecting the greater Atlanta community.

“My first sermon, ‘Closing on a High Note’ was a tribute to him,” said Warnock. “He closed on a high note and was a wonderful example.”

In addition to his wife, Roberts is survived by a son, Carlyle; two daughters, Cheryl Richmond and Cynthia Roberts-Emory, and six grandchildren.

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