As I mentioned in worship, I recently returned from visiting my daughter in Atlanta. The last time I was there was the summer of 2020 during the pandemic and after the protests when the city was shut down and store fronts were boarded up. It was a difficult time for the people of Atlanta. Two years later, I discovered an entirely different city. People were cheerful and friendly. Stores and parks were active and I got a chance to visit some of the tourist attractions. The most memorable of which was the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It provided a powerful history lesson.
Like many people, I was aware of the impact Martin Luther King Jr. had on the country. What I didn’t know about him was that he was born into a powerful community that shaped his evolution as a leader. Starting in the late 19th and early 20th century, as Jim Crow laws were being enacted, residents of Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta began to establish black-owned businesses and organizations to serve one another as they were being cut off from the rest of the city. Sweet Auburn, as it came to be called, was the home of black-owned insurance companies, banks, and markets. There were music halls, newspapers, a Masonic lodge, and even two universities. The community offered housing assistance and medical care; there was a fire department and even a local police department. Residents organized politically and socially to ensure they had a voice in city hall. As a result of all this community organizing, Sweet Auburn not only became an economic powerhouse but it eventually gave birth to the modern civil rights movement.
It is no surprise that at the center of this movement along Auburn Avenue was the African American church. When people gather each week to center their lives on something larger than themselves; when they hear words of hope and endurance; when every song, every prayer and every response affirms a God who walks with them, great things are possible. Historic events will occur. Sweet Auburn is an inspiration for us today. No matter what challenges our community (or our world) faces, the church can offer a way forward. If we keep our focus on the importance of reaching out with care and compassion, if we don’t abandon scripture’s call to moral agency, and if we encourage each other to keep marching on, the church can be a light in the darkness. We are blessed to be called to this community; may we continue on in this important calling.