Two Athens, Ga., churches - one black, one white - came together yesterday morning to celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and Milledge Avenue Baptist Church combined for a Sunday-morning service and luncheon as a way to celebrate the federal holiday that honors the pastor and Civil Rights hero.
About 600 people packed the sanctuary at Mount Pleasant, filling the balcony and causing the ushers to bring out extra chairs. This effort to “desegregate” what King called the mostsegregatedhour came about through conversations between the two pastors, Rev. Edward Bolen, pastor of MilledgeAvenueBaptistChurch, and Rev. Abraham Mosley, pastor of MountPleasantBaptistChurch.
Athens, a city with a long history of race-related struggles that continue in varying forms today, is an ideal place for such an experiment. Mosley said he and Bolen had sought ways for the two churches - and two communities - to come together. Bolen pitched the idea of swapping pulpits and choirs. Mosley said that wasn't enough.
“We need to interact with each other and meet and greet one another,” Mosley recalled saying. “There are a lot of white people in this community who are afraid of black people and there are a lot of black people in this community who are afraid of white people.”
Mosley said one way to get over that fear - rooted in the past - was one word: unity, which was the theme of the Sunday service. “After all,” Mosley said, “we have the same message, same heaven, same God.”
Then came the idea of a Sunday afternoon special service. But that wasn't enough, either.
It was Bolen who said that Milledge Avenue wanted to close their doors on Sunday and combine with Mount Pleasant to worship and fellowship on Sunday and serve the city of Athens on Monday, the official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The vote by the church’s governing board was unanimous.
Members of both congregations made a conscious effort to sit in an unfamiliar place next to an unfamiliar face to worship a very familiar God.
“If this is really real and really important to overcome some of these barriers, let’s come together and come out of our comfort zones,” Bolen said.
When Sunday morning came, the worshipers came, too. The mood was celebratory and reverent, members of both congregations made a conscious effort to sit in an unfamiliar place next to an unfamiliar face to worship a very familiar God.
The unity began in earnest with the opening praise team of members from both congregations. Throughout the service, speakers made considerable efforts to acknowledge the bumpy road of the past and present and honestly engage the present and future about how to overcome barriers to unity.
The blended worship styles were on full display, as the choir from Milledge Avenue sang the Negro spiritual, “My Lord What a Morning.”
Rev. Claude McBride, pastor emeritus of Milledge Avenue, set the tone with a challenge for the congregations to have a “mountaintop experience.” Mount Pleasant member Derica Laramore, a senior at Emory University, performed a monologue that echoed Dr. King's most famous speech. She asked the congregants to accept applause for living out Dr. King’s dream that - on this day - saw “the sons of slaves and the sons of former slave owners to come together” for Sunday morning worship.
Deacon Willie Hull of Mount Pleasant put the day in perspective after congregants from both churches had dined together. “We accomplished what we set out to accomplish,” he said. “We lived the dream.”
“Today is one of the greatest days in our history,” said Mary Louise Hill, a deacon at Milledge Avenue. “Today will become an historic day depending on what we do after today.”
Mosley said perhaps next year, Mount Pleasant will close its doors and worship at Milledge Avenue. This is just the beginning. Both pastors said the same thing when asked what Dr. King would say about the Sunday service: “It's about time.”