Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Few Thoughts on Chilly Atlanta

I am discovering I like to blog about my experiences with cities.  I've always been fascinated by the city --maybe because my parents grew up in a city, and chose to give us a rural upbringing instead.  The two brief years we lived in a city (yes, it was Grand Rapids), I loved the sense of being in a neighborhood, a somewhat eclectic community.  There is energy and synergy and all sorts of fun.  There is a downside --traffic and expense!

I went to Atlanta to do some research on my dissertation --I got to handle holy relics penned in the own hand of my subject of study --Benjamin Morgan Palmer, 19th century city pastor par excellence.  I saw his clock, his armoire and a painted portrait of him.  I am beguiled by him, puzzled by him, sometimes angry at him, and sometimes lifted to the heavens by him.  All of this is good --how many people hate their topics by the time they're done with a dissertation?  I cannot imagine ever being less than fascinated by this tragic, gifted, fascinating and maddening man.

On Friday morning, I ventured to the Columbia Seminary library.  Columbia is situated on the "edge" (insofar as I could tell) of the lovely town of Decatur.  It looks like what a seminary ought to look like --lovely historic buildings centered on a green.  The archivist there was incredibly helpful and interesting to talk with.  It's amazing how just talking to people has given me fertile furrows to hoe for this project.  I will be back, DV, to dig further into the treasure trove of their collection.  I spent about six straight hours pouring over very fragile paper written in a very illegible hand.  His handwriting became better as life wore on --I suspect he either switched from a "quill" to a fountain pen (wikipedia tells me they got popular around 1850) or he had a scribe, due to his poor eyesight.  I took only two brief bathroom and water breaks.  I was transfixed by what I was doing --that is an amazing feeling.  Next time, however, I shall bring my magnifying glass.

On Saturday, after a delightful breakfast with a former professor, I went to the new World of Coca-Cola.  Anyone who knows me well knows I am a complete sucker for an ice cold Coke.  I even buy the Mexican stuff with the real sugar.  I had been to the former site, and expected this one to be markedly better.  It wasn't, but it is still a fun place to visit.  What makes Coke such an interesting company is its marketing scheme, best summarized by its early 1970's ad "I'd like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company."  Like Amway or Apple, it is a quasi-religious commercial entity, which is somewhat creepy.  The first exhibit you come upon is the "vault" which supposedly contains the secret recipe.  You are led through an elaborate "security" process, then taken through the story of Coke's humble beginnings to becoming a beverage colossus.  Then you are led into a 360 - degree media room and saturated with Coke images.  At the end, the walls move and there it is --a big steel vault, looking like something off of 24, lit dramatically in red.  Is it really a vault?  Is the recipe really in there?  The world may never know...

But, on from the quasi-religious to the really religious...

the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site.  It is one of the most amazing that I have been to --as far as I can tell, it is part Park Service, and part King foundation.  It is an entire city block, essentially, comprised of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the interpretive center, the King Center and gravesite, his birth home, and surrounding houses.  It was a very affecting experience.  Much could be said but I choose to focus on the old Ebenezer sanctuary, where Daddy King held forth until 1975 (MLK was an associate), and where Mama King was shot dead in 1974 while accompanying worship.  It is a lovely restored space.  They loop several of MLK's sermons, interspersed with gospel classics by Mahalia Jackson and others.  I was alone in the sanctuary much of the time, sitting and listening spellbound, imagining the man himself holding forth from that very pulpit.  I have a burden for racial reconciliation, but no idea, really, what it could look like in our day and age, so I just asked God if he might show me, and perhaps he will.

Seeing where MLK spent his early days, and hearing about his extraordinary family, and the prospering and then decline of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood --the once-bustling segregated African American community, were quite meaningful.  Yet, even some of the questions asked by well-meaning tourists, I think, belie a latent white privilege, such as "So, they weren't lower class.  I mean, they were educated," as if African-Americans never took steps to better their lot.  In fact, one of the most interesting things I discovered was that there was an evening "institute" conducted by a female, where laboring men and women could go and take college courses, and educate themselves.  MLK's maternal grandfather did just this, becoming both pastor of Ebenezer and a prominent grocer with several stores.  Yes, they were educated, so much so that I thought "I need to make my kids read news articles, formulate opinions and be prepared to make their case around the supper table" like MLK's parents did.  The verse of an old hymn floated through my head afterwards, "Are there no foes for me to face?  Must I not stem the flood?  Is this vile world a friend to grace to help me on to God?"

I waited for Sunday with much anticipation.  Rather than go to one of Atlanta's many PCA congregations, I chose to attend The Church of the Apostles, whose founding pastor, Michael Youssef, I had long admired.  It is an incredible edifice --the best blend of classic and modern I have ever seen.  I cannot fathom what it must have cost to build --it has 90 stained glass windows in the sanctuary.  Yes, 90 windows.  It has a parking deck --I have never sat in a traffic jam in a 5 story church parking deck before.  There is nothing historically "Anglican" about COA, insofar as I can tell.  It left the Episcopal church years ago, and I am not certain that it is now affiliated with the worldwide Anglican movement in any way.  The only hint of Anglicanism about it was the presence of kneelers --which went unused.  The service was well-done, but almost wholly contemporary.  The eucharist was not celebrated.  There was no "liturgy" --it reminded me very much of my own evening service.  I don't want my above comments to be taken as critical.  The sermon was absolutely arresting.  The service was 90 minutes long.  He spoke on false teachers, on Christ as the only way to God, of the possibility of two eternal destinies, and the need to be obedient to the call of Christ, submitting to him as savior and Lord.

I should've taken the opportunity afforded visitors afterwards to meet Dr. Youssef, but my natural tendency to blanch in the presence of well-known people overrode that desire.  I know he is a Calvinist, and that he had been connected to RTS Atlanta (which used to hold its classes at COA).  I will say, however, that it is the friendliest big church I have ever attended.  The folk seated around me made a point of engaging me in conversation.  They "insisted" I come back next Sunday --I told them were I not six hours away, I might!  The woman seated on my pew next to me had been a dean at Atlanta's International School.  She is multi-lingual, had had a career in international relations and now in retirement works for the Leading the Way ministry.  The Lord recruits some extraordinarily fascinating people.  She said she had been a member of Peachtree Presbyterian, which, in the scheme of mainline Presbyterianism, is definitely on the "right" side of things.  A friend had invited her to COA years ago, and she never looked back.  It is amazing that, for all the church growth strategies out there, friends inviting friends still works best.  Something to be learned from that.

I try to learn things from every trip.  Or, rather, I should say, I try to look for what God might teach me from all the fascinating places he's allowing me to visit.  May it continue!


  1. Dear Ken:

    I see that you have been visiting our fair city this weekend. Welcome!

    And let me also identify with you with respect to the wonderful library and archivists at Columbia Seminary. I have spent many a day there myself. You may recall the article I wrote for The Confessional Presbyterian in 2009, entitled "Presbyterian Quintessence: The Five 'Heads' of Church Government," in which I was exploring the mystery as to why the PCA (and the PCUS before it) has the notion of five "heads" of polity. At one point, as I was perusing PCCSA General Assembly minutes from 1864, I whispered out loud "Fascinating! Fascinating!", loudly enough so as to be heard by one of the archivists (who spoke with me later about it).

    However, I must confess that I am disappointed that you didn't come and worship with us this evening at Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship, in the heart of the vibrant city. There, I believe, you would have witnessed the model of racial reconciliation for which you long, and concerning which you wonder how to effect in the church. We were a bit down in attendance this evening--some major sporting event, apparently, was taking place. In any case, it would have been great, and affirming, to have had you present.

    I do hope that next time you're in the area over the Lord's Day, that you will indeed come by. I know that we don't have the grandeur or name recognition of a Church of the Apostles, or a Michael Youssef; but, we do offer an authentic Presbyterian worship service (complete with unaccompanied exclusive psalmody and expositional preaching) in a cross-cultural setting. We hope to see you.

    For Christ's crown and covenant,

    Frank J. Smith, Ph.D., D.D.
    Minister, Atlanta Presbyterian Fellowship (RPCNA), Atlanta, Georgia

  2. Thanks, Frank! I would've gladly worshipped with you all, and enjoyed the worship as well, I'm sure. It was actually last weekend that I was there, and I was home before your evening worship commenced, but I shall have to return to Atlanta several times and will try to avail myself of the opportunity.