Senate race puts Ebenezer, Black church traditions in spotlight

Tina L. Hill remembers sitting in the pew of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2014, moved by the energy and words coming from the pulpit.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day to honor the life and work of King, the pastor who, as a civil rights leader, raised the profile of what was already a prominent Atlanta church.

“I thought, ‘It can’t be like this every Sunday,’” said Hill.

She returned again and again, eventually joining the historic Atlanta church, which played a key role in the nation’s civil rights movement and sits minutes from Atlanta City Hall and the Georgia State Capitol.

Years later, Hill has thrown her support behind the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, that same minister she heard years ago, as he seeks a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Warnock, 51, a Democrat, is running against Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was selected by Gov. Brian Kemp to succeed U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson when he retired. The race has often turned contentious with Loeffler labeling Warnock a “radical” and pointing out in ads his views on abortion, police reform and America’s use of its military.

His statements supporting issues like ending mass incarceration and cash bail for lesser offenses made in sermons from Ebenezer’s pulpit have not only made Warnock a target, but the church as well.

But Ebenezer members, Black church history experts and others say the attention the Senate race has focused on Ebenezer has given rise to misunderstandings about the church and its tradition of collaborative outreach and support of underserved communities. They say faith and racial justice and human rights go hand in hand.

Recently, more than 100 Black and Latino interfaith leaders, mostly from around the state, sent an open letter to Loeffler condemning her criticisms of Warnock, calling them “a broader attack against the Black church and faith traditions for which we stand.”

The Rev. Matthew Wesley Williams, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, said the Black church is not monolithic.

There are many different traditions, which expand “the spectrum from what we call conservative to liberal to progressive to moderate and everything in between,” Williams said. “Not only is the Black church not monolithic, but most of the Black Christian community is a mixture. It’s very hard to box in the Black church. We are as diverse as humanity itself.”

That diversity is one of Ebenezer’s strengths, said Robert M. Franklin Jr., a former Morehouse College president and currently a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

“In general, the membership can be characterized as educated and socially and politically progressive,” said Franklin, who is a member of Ebenezer. “... You get real diversity and debate and dialogue of the issues, which means a leader of such a congregation has to be skillful in persuasion because you can’t assume unity of a point of view on theological and social issues.”

Ebenezer has a long history of a social gospel ministry. It’s in the DNA of the church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.

“Activism has been at the core of that church,” said Judy Forte, superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, which draws between 600,000 and 700,000 visitors a year. “That church has always been on top of what’s happening in the community and forward thinking.”

Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.  ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Warnock is the fifth pastor to lead the influential church ― nicknamed “America’s Freedom Church” — in its 134-year history.

Tom Houck estimates he’s shuttled more than 30,000 visitors from all over the world as part of his Civil Rights Tours Atlanta, which he started in 2015.

The tour starts at the heritage sanctuary, which is now part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park. It stopped being used for services in 1999, when the new church, referred to as the horizon sanctuary, was completed under the leadership of the Rev. Joseph L. Roberts Jr.

“It’s the mecca of the mecca in Atlanta,” Houck said of the church where King delivered his first sermon in 1947. “In the 1930s and ’40s, the church was always, always open. It was the go-to place. It was the heart of Sweet Auburn Avenue.”

Ebenezer was part of a power block of religious institutions along that corridor, once the hub of Black Atlanta, that included Wheat Street Baptist Church and Big Bethel AME Church.

President Jimmy Carter sings with (from left) Martin Luther King Sr., Rosalynn Carter, Andrew Young and Coretta Scott King at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Jan. 14, 1979. Carter was there to accept the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolence Peace Prize. (Courtesy of Jimmy Carter Library)

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

The Rev. Shanan Jones joined Ebenezer under Roberts on Easter Sunday 2004. He served in a number of roles, under Warnock, before eventually becoming executive pastor. He formed his own church, The Gathering Baptist Church in College Park, in 2017.

“Ebenezer is a traditional Black church ... and like the Black family and the Black community, the doors are always open to everyone,” he said. “When folks come to Ebenezer, they see the gospel that formed Dr. King. People come for various reasons, but I would argue that what makes them stay is the progressive message of the gospel of Jesus Christ that was embodied in the life of Martin Luther King and is threaded through every ministry in the church.”

Historically, the Black church has been the epicenter of Black life and rarely has its mission been confined to within the walls of the church, said Nicole Phillips, director of Black church studies and an associate professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

It became “a nation within a nation,” she said. “Our first political leaders came out of the Black church because the church allowed for the exercising of leadership skills. The church began as a place of refuge from a white, hostile world.”

It’s not unusual to see well-known faces — including celebrities, community leaders and politicians of both major parties, from presidents to candidates — at Ebenezer, which grew from a handful of members to more than 6,000 today. The annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration each January is held at Ebenezer, although it is a King Center program. This past January, it included a visit by Loeffler.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson gives remarks during the the 46th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Service at Ebenezer Baptist Church Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. Behind him on the podium are the Rev. Raphael Warnock (left), senior pastor of Ebenezer, Bernice King, Christine King Farris and Gov. Nathan Deal. (AJC file photo / Kent D. Johnson)



The funerals for Congressman John Lewis, civil rights leader and Atlanta Student Movement member Lonnie C. King Jr., and Rayshard Brooks, the 27-year-old man who was shot by an Atlanta police officer earlier this year, were all held at Ebenezer.

In 2017, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by a masked gunman for her work advocating for education for young people, spoke at the church and called for peace and understanding.

The church is also a community caretaker, providing services including food distribution, health screenings, and supplies for those hit by natural disasters like Hurricane Dorian, which devastated parts of the Bahamas, in 2019. During the pandemic, Ebenezer has worked with partners to provide masks, hand sanitizer, flu shots and COVID-19 tests.

In 2019, the church co-hosted a multi-faith conference on ending mass incarceration. Among those attending were two members of the so-called Central Park Five, now popularly called the Exonerated Five. They were five African American and Latino teens who were wrongly arrested and convicted in the 1989 beating and rape of a white female jogger in New York.

Isaac Newton Farris Jr., whose two uncles, grandfather and great-grandfather preached there, said anyone who isn’t comfortable with the social gospel ministry of Ebenezer probably won’t stick around.

“If you come to Ebenezer, you come there knowing that, dating back to A.D. Williams, each pastor has built on that. Ebenezer has always been part of the community in that way. If it gets a little hot for them, they will probably find another place to worship.”

Experts on the Black church say Warnock is following in the footsteps of a long line of Black pastors, dating back to slavery in this nation, who have addressed issues of equality, social justice and community building from the pulpit and sometimes used fiery language and hyperbole to do so.

Yolanda Pierce, dean of the divinity school of Howard University, said it’s important to understand Black theology and the Black church.

“The Black church itself was birthed out of the protest movement,” she said. “It’s its birthright. For a pastor, the pulpit is the place to address contemporary issues and spiritual issues. Dr. Warnock is connected to this long legacy. For African Americans, there’s nothing particularly radical at all.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of Black adults say it is important for places of worship to address “political topics such as immigration and race relations.” Conversely, 36% of white U.S. adults say it is important for sermons to deal with these topics.

Protesters march past Ebenezer Baptist Church and toward the CNN Center on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.  The protest started at Ebenezer Baptist Church as a political gathering and joined a Black Lives Matter protest at the CNN Center with a heavy police escort along the way. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Benjamin Ridgeway joined Ebenezer in 1978, and serves as the church’s historian. He points to the activism practiced by former Ebenezer pastors, including Williams, one of the founders and an early president of the Atlanta Chapter of the NAACP. Williams was a pioneer of the social gospel, which included community economic development as well as social action.

He helped organize the Georgia Equal Rights League to protest the white primary system and was credited with getting NAACP delegates to meet in Atlanta in 1920, the first national meeting of the civil rights organization in the South, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institution at Stanford University.

The elder King pushed for voter registration, equal pay for teachers and economic sustainability in the Black community.

Warnock’s immediate predecessor, Roberts, began a program to help teenage mothers and provide tutoring and counseling. He also started a food co-op and worked with senior citizens.

“Historically, the Black church has been called the conscience of the nation and the Black preacher has always been outspoken on issues of social justice,” said Bishop Reginald T. Jackson, presiding prelate of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Sixth District.

In a 1954 letter to Ebenezer members, King sums up his gratitude for the church’s support. Members of the church had participated in King’s installation as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.

“All of this continues to prove to me that there is but one Ebenezer. Your generosity and big heartedness will always keep you in the forefront, and you will always stand as a symbol of what other churches ought to be.”

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