By Bob Allen
Members of a Baptist church in Atlanta gathered for the last time May 25 in a historic building being demolished to make way for a new Atlanta Falcons football stadium.
Friendship Baptist Church, established in 1862 and independently organized as Atlanta’s first autonomous black Baptist congregation after the Civil War in 1866, voted last year to sell its home since 1871 for $19.5 million. The building last renovated in 1998 will be demolished to clear the site for a new $1.3 billion retractable-roof stadium scheduled to open for the 2017 NFL season.
A second congregation displaced by the project, nearby Mount Vernon Baptist Church, is already gone. It was vacated for $14.5 million in March, torn down in April and now meets at Carver College while searching for a permanent home.
Started by 25 former slaves who met in a discarded railroad boxcar, Friendship Baptist became known as the “mother church” of Atlanta for its role in forming nine congregations across the metropolitan area. The congregation with an active membership of about 400 and annual budget of $1.3 million is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches USA, American Baptist Churches of the South and the Baptist World Alliance and its regional unit, the North American Baptist Fellowship.
Led by just six pastors in its 151-year history, the church is currently seeking a new pastor, with a deadline for receiving applications recently passed. Emmanuel McCall, a past moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has served as interim pastor since 2013.
Pastor Emeritus William Guy, who served as pastor from 1971 to 2007, told congregants at the final worship service that it isn’t the first time Friendship Baptist has had to make a major decision about its future. When the Georgia Dome was built in 1992 at a cost of $214 million, the church decided to stay put, adjust to its new neighbor and invest in renovations to the old building.
Friendship Baptist has also played an important role in education in the community. Two historically black colleges — Morehouse College and Spelman College — started out meeting in the church’s basement.
The congregation will meet temporarily at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse while working to acquire land for a permanent location.