Friendship Baptist Church is so old it faces the wrong side of the street. It's the first thing I notice upon arriving at the 151-year-old church, which sits near the intersection of Northside and Martin Luther King Jr. drives, but fronts Mitchell Street.
Of course, that could change if Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank get their way and demolish the church, and Mount Vernon Baptist Church across the street, to build a new football stadium.
"Pray or play," is how "NBC Nightly News" framed the dilemma in April. And it truly is that rare story deserving of every bit of media hyperbole. Beneath all the symbolic talk that pits a historic institution against athletic tradition and cultural heritage against economic prosperity lie real decisions about the legacy upon which Atlanta intends to build its future.
Lloyd Hawk, the head of Friendship's board of trustees, talks about the impending deal with the pragmatism you'd expect from someone who's been a banker for 30 years. Upon initially hearing that the proposed stadium would require the demolition of the church in which he was born and raised, he admits his first response was pure passion: "When the idea was first broached to us, [our reaction] was not just no, but hell no. But we also realized it's not just an emotional decision, it's not just a financial decision, and it's not just a mission and program decision. It's all three combined."
The day before I met with Hawk, Reed told 11 Alive News that the church had turned down the city's initial offer of $13.1 million — and counter-offered with $24.5 million. Too high, said Reed, who raised the offer to $15.5 million.
Considering the public outcry over the potential hidden cost of building the new stadium, Reed's leak to the press seemed like a slick political move — one that implied the church had too many dollar signs in its eyes.
But a visit to Friendship revealed a church with more modest intentions. The current 132-year-old structure sits on little more than three acres of land. Inside, Hawk escorted me to a small library near the main office with round tables, chairs, and a few bookcases. He said the church was blindsided by the mayor going to the press when Friendship had yet to receive a formal offer letter from the city in writing.
While it's impossible to put a price on the church's history, Hawk admits, Friendship wants to afford the ability to expand on its existing social programs, including its clothing bank, tutoring, and senior and low-income housing, all while remaining located in the community. "If we're in the position to expand all our programs then the church can say, 'Yes, that's our mission.' Our mission isn't to [uphold] our past."
Still, it's hard to overlook the historic riches of Friendship as Hawk gives me a tour. In the basement, he reminds me that two of the nation's premier black institutions, Spelman College and Morehouse College, respectively, were established and held early classes there. Old black-and-white photos show members congregating on the steps of the main entrance more than 100 years ago. Huge portraits show the church's first six pastors, including Rev. Dr. Maynard Jackson Sr., the father of Atlanta's first black mayor, and Rev. Dr. William Guy, the father of actress Jasmine Guy.
But Hawk realizes that the church is the people, not the building. And in an age where the proliferation of extravagant megachurch campuses has become the norm, it's an honorable principle. He wants to revive an aging institution whose future may not seem as bright as its past.
Once the bedrock of African-American communities, the black church-at-large has lost much of the relevance it enjoyed before and during the Civil Rights Movement. In May, a nearby protest about the city's proposed demolition of the churches only drew about 15 participants. None were members of either houses of worship. Even in the black mecca, African-Americans are so ambivalent about our history in this country that the stories of triumph often get swept under the rug along with the tragedies. It makes us as eager to move on as the profiteers.
The lack of a broader public outcry seems par for the course in Atlanta, where the phoenix symbolically rising from the ashes points us toward perennial progress. But progress isn't always progressive.
It's hard to compete with the new stadium design, which was approved a week before Reed went public with his version of the stalled negotiations with the church. Who among us wouldn't choose a space-age stadium with a retractable roof straight out of "The Jetsons" over a religious relic with reminders of the South's segregationist past written all over it?
If Reed and Blank are as committed as they claim to be about uplifting the community surrounding the new stadium, this deal with Friendship is the real litmus test. While Hawk says that the church is 100 percent committed to striking a deal with the city — provided that the congregation's needs are met — Reed seems less than amiable in recent days. On Monday, he turned down Hawk's request for mediation.
The battle is not over. In fact, one line recited during last Sunday's service at Friendship seemed to demand that the church be recognized — and took a cue from the Falcons' own popular slogan: "Men of God," it read, "rise up, rise up and tell our children of the dedication and faithfulness of the Founders of this congregation."
Whether they'll do so in a historic building remains to be seen.