AN ATHEIST IN MARTIN LUTHER KING'S ATLANTA - November 2013
Fifty years ago, in the era of Martin Luther King, black-led Baptist churches were at the heart of the civil rights movement. They played a crucial part in reshaping the United States, and continue to attract millions of African-American adherents. On his first visit to the American south, Andrew Whitehead joined worshippers at what was once Martin Luther King’s church, in Atlanta:
‘Fried green tomatoes – it was a great film, not so great to eat. Catfish is edible only in really spicy breadcrumbs. Avoid grits for breakfast – though shrimp’n’grits is good for lunch. And go to a Baptist service: If you are courteous and friendly you'll be welcomed and it’s truly an astonishing experience.’
A friend’s emailed advice when he heard I was heading to Atlanta, my first experience of America’s deep south. He was right on the shrimp’n’grits – wrong on the fried green tomatoes – and I steered well clear of catfish however cooked.
And going to church? Well, I’m a non-believer, I don’t go to church. Not entirely true. My wife once said, a touch accusingly: for an atheist, you spend an awful lot of time in churches. They are often so magnificent. Their doors open. Such a good way of communing with the past.
More than that. Faith is so tied up with identity, community, you can’t be interested in today’s world and uninterested in the public expression and private meaning of religious practice.
There’s a personal back story too. In the north of England mill village where I grew up, the Baptist church once loomed large. It was where the mill owners worshipped. A squat Victorian edifice - still black with soot stains. Both my grandmothers went to church there; my uncle was a deacon; my father attended the Sunday School; my parents married there in the Coronation summer of 1953. There must be a bit of Baptist in me. Strange to say, though I grew up a short stroll away, I entered the church for the first time only a few years ago – as part of my personal communing with the past.
At the time Gildersome’s Baptist church was being built, in the mid-1860s, Atlanta was burned to the ground. The most emphatic aspect of the pro-slavery south’s defeat in the American civil war. Atlanta rose from those ashes. It is now the premier city of the southern states – home of Coca Cola and CNN. The site of the 1996 Olympics - and of the grave of America’s most renowned Baptist, Martin Luther King.
My first morning in Atlanta – jet-lagged and up much earlier than makes sense on a Sunday – I stumbled across the city to the district once known as ‘Sweet Auburn’. City guides say that in the 1930s, when Michael King - as he was born - was growing up here, this was the richest black locality in the world. Solid, respectable, and deeply religious.
The Ebenezer Baptist Church was at the heart of the community. Its founding pastor had been born into slavery. The old church, the one where both King and his father preached, is now largely a tourist attraction. The new church across the road, opened fourteen years ago, is vast and impressive. Where the older churches were a touch dark and enclosed, this one has space and light.
As I walked in the lobby at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, it was full of activity. Outreach stalls. Mission stands. A service underway in the main auditorium. I craned through the glass doors. I hadn’t intended to go in – it feels an intrusion if you are not there for worship. But an usher - besuited, bow tied - opened the door and beckoned me in.
It was the early service, the church wasn’t full, though there would have been perhaps four- or five-hundred present. I didn’t spot another white face. The pastor was delivering his sermon – persuasive oratory about the church's new mental health ministry, tackling stigma and providing support.
The choir was magical, even for someone usually unmoved by gospel music. Twenty or so men, middle aged or older - in matching suits, and striking pale yellow ties - swaying as they sang. If I thought that sitting at the back I could be inconspicuous, that's not how this service works. I want you to turn to the person next to you, said the pastor, and say: have you welcomed Christ into your life? The woman to my right grabbed my wrist, smiled and asked just that. ‘I can’t honestly say I have’, I said, and posed the same question back. "Yes, I have", she replied.
The final hymn, the congregation all held hands, swaying to the rhythm, and in the final verse, we raised our arms aloft. There was an energy, a joyfulness, which I found moving, and humbling.
I can see why the church looms so large in the lives of the congregation. It has helped take them from darkness to a better place, it does that - after a fashion - every Sunday.