In a few weeks, the Rev. Cameron Madison Alexander will celebrate 60 years of preaching the gospel, 45 of those at Antioch Baptist Church North.
In all that time, Antioch has stood as a beacon of hope in a community beset with all manner of blight, from poverty to joblessness to racism. And it has been Alexander who has tried, always leading by example, to do the often stressful work of ministering to the least, the less and the lost in Atlanta’s Fifth Ward.
I know because my family and I have been the beneficiaries of that ministry since arriving in Atlanta 14 years ago.
While 45 years isn’t as significant as, say, 50 or 100 years, this anniversary comes at an especially significant time, marked by upheaval and testing. The community has been stung by the demolition of two of its houses of worship – Mount Vernon Baptist Church and historic Friendship Baptist – to make way for the new Falcons stadium.
So, when I invited Alexander to look back over his ministry, the 82-year-old pastor’s eyes were fixed on the future, on those left to fend for themselves and why Antioch must remain for the long haul.
“The bank is there to help people transact money, schools are there to educate the children,” he said. “I believe a church ought to have reasons for occupying the space that it does. It needs to ask what is it doing to represent the Lord.”
For Antioch, that has sometimes meant walking a lonely road. When other religious leaders said AIDS was a curse from God and turned their backs on victims of the deadly disease, Alexander made the unpopular decision to stand with them, to see to it that they got the care they needed.
Not only did he start support groups at Antioch at the height of the epidemic, he eventually opened Matthew’s Place, named for one of the 12 apostles who’s credited with writing Matthew 25:35: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”
For years, Antioch has provided food for the hungry, shelter and support services to those struggling with substance abuse, clothing for the naked, scholarships totaling some $1.5 million and, when necessary, advocacy for those facing injustice — both her members and the English Avenue community where the church has stood for more than 135 years.
The congregation numbers doctors and lawyers and even a former candidate for the president of the United States, Herman Cain among its members. But you will also find the poor and uneducated, the unemployed and underemployed.
“For whatever reason, the Lord has kept us here,” Alexander said. “And the members keep coming — I think because they’re committed to the missionary endeavors we have.” That commitment endures even though Antioch’s is largely a drive-in congregation, with members as far away as Cartersville and Griffin.
But Alexander wonders, especially now with the relocation of Mt. Vernon and Friendship, how his flock will meet the needs. “These were very powerful churches. Mt. Vernon had awesome outreach. Friendship was a historical anchor.”
Still, the pastor is not wthout hope.
“I’m excited to get to see how the Lord is going to take care of all the people left in the wake of the moving of the two churches,” he said.
Some people are drawn to Antioch to be a part of the tradition it represents. Some simply by its physical beauty. My husband and I were drawn to Antioch because of Alexander’s ability to rightly divide the word, his generosity of spirit, and compassion for people. We have not been disappointed.
Over and over across the years, we’ve watched him turn away from the instinct to judge and to punish, turning toward the impulse to give to the least. Choosing to model community the same way Jesus did seems second nature to this self-described “paper boy,” who has been delivering God’s word for 60 years now.
More importantly, he has shone the light of faith into people’s lives.
And so it is not surprising or unusual for his flock, even without the benefit of an anniversary, to offer him applause when he stands in his pulpit.
I asked him about that, and he said he doesn’t know what to make of it.
“I don’t understand it, because in most instances after a certain time, nobody’s glad to see you,” he said, laughing. “To be appreciated after 45 years, I think, is the greatest present that a pastor can receive from his membership. It gives me an added incentive to be better as a pastor and preacher.”
The congregation will officially mark his anniversary with a special worship service Aug. 3.
Looking forward, he said, he’d like to see Antioch develop the 38 acres of land it had accumulated under his leadership.
Sometimes, he envisions building a new sanctuary, sometimes a family life center, a senior citizen facility, or “first class” health clinic and magnet school.
All he knows for sure is that God will make a way for Antioch to continue to care for His people.
The greatest challenge, as he sees it, is to provide for the community in terms of spiritual growth.
The Falcons, he said, have invested $1.3 billion in football.
“I believe there has to be a spiritual investment,” he said. “The recreational part is temporary. The spiritual is eternal.”