In light of recent AJC articles about churches and race relations in Atlanta, I dug out this excerpt from a memoir on which I am working. Please share your thoughts and comments!
The majestic West End Baptist Church building was a landmark in Atlanta’s West End district. The church was founded in 1888 and occupied several buildings in West End before settling in 1953 at what was then 1040 Gordon Street. It grew to a congregation of nearly 4000 members in the late 1940s and sired several other baby Baptist churches. The site and building is now occupied by the West Hunter Street Baptist Church, and the address is officially 1040 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, SW, Atlanta.
The church occupied the 1040 Gordon Street building the same year I was born, 1953. Dr. O. Norman Shands was called as the pastor that same year. Dr. Shands would play an auspicious role in the first ten years of my life, the decade he spent as the spiritual leader of West End Baptist Church. Even though I was in Sunday School more often than I was the actual church service, The Holy Spirit was winding its way into my young heart, although he wouldn’t fully take up occupancy until Dr. Shands had moved on. Years later, as a young adult, I came to understand the significance of a real relationship with God and would fully embrace what it means to be a Christian. Oh, one never stops learning and my understanding has grown and modulated over the years, but it is still the most significant decision of my life and the one that has made it possible for me to be the person I am today.
Thank God for parents who even though they did not go to church, made it possible for me to do so. Even more – thank God for friends and church leaders who welcomed a child in their midst who was not one of their own. If not for them, I could have remained firmly stuck in the prejudices of my early surroundings.
“The process was a work of the grace of God because the only thing that can change prejudice that is ingrained from birth would be the grace of God,”
These words were said in an interview published by the Associated Baptist Press in 2007. I firmly believe this to be true. Since discovering this quote, I have a greater understanding of those who bear prejudices. Do they not truly know God? Have they not sought his guidance to relieve themselves of hatred? These words hold so much promise, why have they not availed themselves of their significance? I have to come to believe the grace of God is our only hope for resolving race issues.
Church, not just West End Baptist but the “Church” as a larger entity would prove to be a battleground during the Civil Rights era of the early 1960s. As I mentioned before, this is not intended to be an inclusive treatise on the role of the church at that time. I am limited to my personal experiences and how they shaped my life.
Dr. Shands, with other local pastors, was influential in crafting and declaring the Atlanta Minister’s Manifesto: A Declaration of Equality. After standing his ground for Civil Rights, much to the displeasure of several of the church’s leaders, Dr. Shands left West End Baptist in 1963. Many would say that was the beginning of the end for West End Baptist. I was only a child of 10 and all of that was over my head, but in my quest to understand I have learned the history from those who were present. The Shands’ family experience and an inside peek at some of the Baptist church politics at play in those days is chronicled in a book written by Shands’ son, Bob Shands, titled, In My Father’s House: Lessons Learned in the Home of a Civil-Rights Volunteer. It chronicles his father’s contributions bridging racial barriers and the impact those times had on him as a youngster.
As a teenager, the church was the center of my social life. I actively participated in everything they offered. After having an interim minister for several years, West End finally called a new pastor. He established a dynamic team of church staff who knew how to engage youth. We went on choir tours, made records, and had retreats. The church built a gymnasium, an active community sports program, and put on musical theatre presentations. Sadly, those days were to be the last hurrah for West End Baptist. For the time being, church members who had moved from integrating neighborhoods continued to drive into West End and support their beloved church home. But that would not last forever.
Some say all good things must come to an end, and those happy days were no exception. The charismatic pastor suddenly departed in the midst of a common church calamity: allegations of sexual misconduct between him and women in the church. Although considered innocent of any wrongdoing, the remaining staff followed shortly afterwards. Again, as a young teenager and not being a family member of one of the pillars of the church, at the time I was totally unaware of the nature of the upheaval. I did witness the church split that resulted, as well as some of the animosity that developed between former church members. The split was the beginning of the death knell for West End, as many wealthier members departed and the church was left in dire straits financially.
Yet, there was to be one final encounter that would lay the groundwork for an amazing development. After several months, the church would call yet another pastor who would be the last in the long line of venerated Baptist preachers who would lead the congregation of the West End Baptist Church. He was not to play the role of salvaging the church from ruins, but to be our spiritual guide and comforter as the church family went through its death throes. Although at first I did not comprehend this, I came to have personal knowledge of the process as a participant and close friend of this pastor’s family. He had been fully informed of the nature of the situation – a financially ailing church in an area of rapidly changing demographics. I don’t believe there were any illusions of rescuing the church or performing a miraculous resuscitation.
It was a sad, sad time. I had grown up in this church. Had come to know the Lord through this church. Had been through fires and restoration of this church. And now, I had come to adulthood and been married in this church. As a young 20 year old, even I saw the handwriting on the wall. When, as GAs, my friend and I crossed the interstate that divided West End to lead a children’s Bible story time at a mission house, even though the little black children could have easily walked to the church house, when the same little black children were eventually welcomed into the Wednesday evening children’s programs but not the fellowship hall for dinner, and when the membership dwindled to a paltry few, it was clear the church as I knew it would not survive.
“I would rather see this building sold and used by a black congregation to serve God and minister to this neighborhood than to see it continue to die; Or worse, to be sold and razed only to be replaced by a parking lot.” Those were the words I spoke in one of the final church conferences. I wanted to imply the church leaders were “chicken” and not willing to stay and become a guiding example of an integrated church, but my bravado did not go quite that far. Just to stand up as a young person in the conference took all the guts I could muster. At one point, there had been talk of relocating the congregation, but there was too much disagreement about where to go. The decision was becoming more obvious – the property would need to be sold and the church body disbanded.
The final pastor who led us through the valley of the shadow of death would depart for greener pastures, having done his part behind the scenes to bring about a transformation that to me seemed miraculous, but to some others seemed a desecration. Those others would be ones who had hardened their hearts and not experienced the transformation Dr. O. Norman Shands spoke of in overcoming their prejudices. Working with the few influential leaders left, Dr. Stanley R. Hahn orchestrated the sale of the property to a long-standing city of Atlanta black congregation that was influential as an icon of the Civil Rights movement, the West Hunter Street Baptist Church.
“The Lord told me to claim this property as the new home of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church!” said Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, addressing Dr. Stanley Hahn in the pastor’s study of the West End Baptist Church one morning.
In his typical kind humor, Dr. Hahn replied,
“And did the Lord also give you the money to buy this property?”
Dr. Abernathy laughed and said something along the lines of not yet, but he would. Dr. Hahn suggested they pray about it and for West Hunter Street to go ahead with fundraising. Indeed, the Lord did provide the money and the sale was closed. On a beautiful October Sunday morning in October 1973 the last services of the West End Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia were held. The following Sunday the West Hunter Street Baptist Church moved into its new home at 1040 Gordon St. The street would later be renamed Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard after the renowned pastor and Civil Rights public figure. Dr. Hahn and his wife, Dot, became good friends with Dr. Abernathy and his wife, Juanita.
On August 29, 2010, A West End Baptist Legacy reunion was held on the premises of the West Hunter Street Baptist church. The program was planned jointly by Gloria Hahn Tinsley, daughter of the last pastor of West End Pastor Stanley Hahn, other former West End Baptist members, and the leadership of the West Hunter Street Baptist Church. The West Hunter Street membership was extremely gracious in opening their doors to us. The joint worship service, led by former West End Baptist members and West Hunter Street members, was a truly worshipful experience and illustrated the power of God to work in people’s lives to overcome racial prejudice. Dr. O. Norman Shands would have been proud!