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This Life with Gracie: A pastor and his 150-year-old church come full circle

By the time the Rev. Dwight Andrews arrived at the First Congregational Church in 1988, the Atlanta worship center had already established itself as a beacon of hope; a place of not only progress but possibility.

But for all the good it had done, for all the uplift it had provided over the last century, the church had fallen into disrepair and had grown inward, more concerned with its own needs and those of its members than the community it was founded to help.

Established in 1867 for emancipated slaves, the church that was responsible for constructing the first public water fountain for African-Americans and sponsored libraries and training schools for girls had pretty much retreated to within its four walls.

And so it stood in stark contrast to the church Andrews attended in Detroit, that first piqued his interest in the Christian faith and where he spent much of his time honing his skills as a young musician.

That’s changed.

Members of the First Congregational Church in Atlanta pose outside the building for photographer Thomas Askew. (SPECIAL / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)

In the years since Andrews has been leading this flock of 500, First Church has reclaimed its rightful place, not only working to change hearts and minds, but people’s lives.

“I’m really pleased to say that the church decided to take another look at itself and reframe its mission and to make sure it did what Jesus said, go into the world.”

And yet, as the church prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary Oct. 1 , Andrews can’t help having mixed feelings because of the current state of affairs marked by turmoil, turbulence and civil unrest in our nation, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1960s.

“Even as we celebrate all the accomplishments, much of the challenges we face today are the same that our community faced 100 years ago,” he said, citing troubled public education systems, lack of affordable housing, disparities in the judicial system and the ill treatment of blacks by law enforcement. “Those are many of the same problems the church tried to address 100 years ago.

“It means that progress is not permanent, and we can’t have a birthday party without continuing to chip at the stone. We have to marshal ourselves for our present and future communities.”

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In many ways, both Andrews and First Congregational Church have come full circle.

Not unlike the church of his youth, First Church, under Andrews’ leadership, has taken its rightful place in the community, partnering with community groups to help the community.

Working with a nonprofit, the church provided outreach to people with HIV for four years. It collects food and household items on a continuing basis and donates them to the Georgia State University food pantry. It provides space and financial support for a community group to hold classes on healthy cooking and eating.

“We’re helping make things happen by empowering other organizations to do what they do,” Andrews said. “I’m not that 15-year-old kid anymore, but a half century later, I’m now living out the very values I was exposed to when I was a kid. I guess God had a plan for me all along.”

The First Congregational Church, ironically, was founded right after the Civil War by white ministers and missionaries who traveled south to start freedman schools and later a church.

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“In post-Civil War Atlanta, former slaves were learning to read and write, and receiving religious instruction from the missionaries, when many whites in the region were still illiterate,” Andrews said. “What makes this church so interesting is that by 1900, several generations of educated blacks had become part of a burgeoning black middle class. They were the educators, pharmacists and physicians, who literally pointed the way to Atlanta as a city of ‘Negro progress.’”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

That is the kind of church Andrews witnessed growing up in the city of Motown Records, when he and his best friend formed a rock ‘n’ roll band called The Seven Sounds.

“We thought we were something else,” he said. “None of our parents would let us practice at home, so we spent our weekends practicing in the basement of Plymouth Congregational Church.”

It was there he got a chance to see that church was not just something people did on Sunday.

“This church was involved in all kinds of wonderful programs and I got a chance to see it,” he said.

Plymouth developed low-income housing and rallied the community around grassroots efforts, including the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Walk to Freedom that drew more than 125,000 people from the across the country.

“That set the seed that wouldn’t bloom for many years,” Andrews said.

In 1974, after graduating with degrees in music from the University of Michigan, Andrews headed to Yale Divinity School to figure out for himself if his yearning to help change the world was to be done in ministry.

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While seeking his answer, he made a living playing local clubs and working in New York. During this time, he met Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson. For the next two decades, Andrews collaborated with Wilson, serving as music director for the Broadway productions of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and other Wilson plays.

He graduated from Yale in 1977 and was ordained the following year on Jan. 15, King’s birthday.

Andrews was finishing work on his doctorate when he met Desiree Pedescleaux at a Cornel West lecture. They married in 1988 and moved to Atlanta where he got a job teaching at Emory.

Dwight Andrews (l) blends his love of music and ministry as an Emory professor and head of the First Congregational Church. He's also a performer. Over the holidays, he teamed up with trombonist Emmett Goods for a concert at the Rialto Center. (Credit: Danny Morris)

Two years later, he was called to First Church as an associate minister. A decade later, in 1999, he was named senior minister.

Every day since then, Andrews has tried to figure out how he and his 500 members can not only make life better for themselves but for the greater Atlanta community.

Was his yearning to help change the world to be found in ministry? I think Andrews has his answer.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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