Historic churches find new life beyond glory years
ATLANTA — A century ago Druid Hills grew into prominence as a desirable Atlanta neighborhood. Designed with a series of parks by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the community held stately homes surrounded by treetop canopies.
Nearby Druid Hills Baptist Church took its prominent place along Ponce de Leon Avenue. In its glory years, throngs of well-appointed worshipers flocked to the stately Beaux-Arts sanctuary with massive columns to hear the preaching of denominational statesman Louis D. Newton.
Were Louis D. to drop into that setting today, he likely wouldn’t believe his eyes.
Decades of changes — from suburban flight to gentrification with new Sunday options — have impacted the community along with the much-smaller and more diverse congregation that now goes by the name The Church at Ponce & Highland.
And more change is underway. Two buildings erected behind the sanctuary in the 1950s were sold to a developer who is replacing them with apartments, townhomes, restaurants, shops and a parking deck.
Funds from the sale have allowed the church to restore the 1920s sanctuary and other spaces for current ministry needs said pastor Mimi Walker. And it all meets one of the congregation’s top priorities: “We want to stay here,” said Walker who shepherds the faithful longtime members who have witnessed great change as well as newcomers.
“The elderly people here are onboard with change,” said Walker, appreciatively. “They want the church to be here for years to come.”
On the other hand, she noted that younger members are the ones creating a history room at the church to preserve archives and to honor the heritage of Druid Hills Baptist Church, which remains the legal name of the congregation.
OLD WAYS, NEW WAYS
The sanctuary — which now draws about 70 worshipers each Sunday — has refinished hardwood floors, wider spacing between pews and the all-important center aisle for weddings.
The westward view continues to show the close proximity to the city center, but behind the sanctuary is something new to behold. The new development rises with the final stages of construction and lots of promise for new ministry opportunities — along with much-needed parking.
“It’s been a fascinating process,” said Mimi, who first served as co-pastor for three years, beginning in 2008, with her husband Graham Walker who teaches at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
The mix of old and new continues for the congregation, she noted. The choir pulled out a cantata from the 1930s last year and, according to Mimi, everyone loved it.
“We’re offering a progressive faith in a traditional style of worship,” she explained.
The name change was an intentional effort to identify more closely with the surrounding neighborhoods.
“We put a lot of energy into being a community church,” she said.
While the church retains its Baptist ties (Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Alliance of Baptists) and identity, removing the B-word from the sign was a strategic move, said Mimi. “People think, ‘I could visit that church but I didn’t grow up Baptist.’”
The congregation participates in collaborative ministries with other neighborhood churches and provides opportunities for members to engage in service — which appeals to many younger residents moving into the area.
“They are looking for a place to give back,” she said.
The church takes a wide embrace in welcoming members and others who might wish to share in worship or various activities of the congregation. Varied gifts are needed and put to use, said Mimi.
“It feels like missions,” she said of the unique pastorate.
Mimi would know; she was a missionary for many years, teaching at the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary before coming to Atlanta where she taught spiritual formation and served as pastor to the community at McAfee School of Theology.
Like many churches, Druid Hills Baptist was struggling to maintain its massive and aging facilities. The air conditioning crashed just before the big 100th anniversary celebration.
So the new mixed-use development behind the church represents both an opportunity for the congregation to restore and reconfigure its facilities for its current ministries and also to welcome those who will be their new close-up neighbors.
Times have changed — and are changing.
In Dallas, “change” seems too small of a word to describe the various transitions that have taken place for Gaston Oaks Baptist Church — earlier known as Gaston Avenue.
Two decades ago the historic and declining congregation that once boasted a membership of 7,000 relocated from downtown to the northeast side of the city in an effort to reach new families. Yet the desired results were not met.
In an act of courage and stewardship, the congregation re-envisioned its mission — opening its facilities to multiple congregations of varied ethnicities and forming new community ministries under the name Gaston Christian Center.
Gary Cook, who came out of retirement to lead the new ministry efforts, first served as interim pastor beginning in 2009. His enthusiasm for the ministries that continue to arise is contagious.
In May of last year, the church voted unanimously to deed its facilities and property to the Gaston Christian Center as the new vehicle for an expanded ministry.
“I am often asked how I was able to lead a congregation whose average age was 83 to make this kind of radical change,” said Cook. “The question implies way too much credit for me. The answer is: it was not that difficult, and the vast share of the credit goes to the present membership of Gaston Oaks.”
The English-speaking congregation, he noted, even agreed to change its long-held worship schedule to allow the fast-growing Chen congregation to meet at a desirable time.
Cook said proudly: “These amazing people were true to their more than 100-year mission’s legacy … The Gaston Christian Center gives them hope!”
While many churches talk about diversity, the varied ministries at Gaston exemplify it.
“Today there are seven congregations located at Gaston Christian Center,” said Cook. “This includes the original Gaston Oaks congregation, three congregations from Myanmar/Burma (Karen, Chen and Zomi), and three other congregations made up of people from Bhutan, Central Africa, and various Latin American countries.”
Each congregation has its own pastor, said Cook, with the ministers meeting monthly for coordination and encouragement.
“The bond that has developed among these six men and one woman has been one of the greatest blessings of my life,” said Cook. “The pastors and congregations support each other in ministry and mission efforts in their native countries.”
On occasion each year, he added, the seven congregations share in worship as one church.
A former office building acquired by the church allows for a variety of ministries by offering space to non-profit groups that provide medical and dental care to the working poor, refugee support and training, food for the hungry, tutorials for at-risk children, and more.
“Today, young families with many children fill the halls,” said Cook. “The ‘old folks’ of Gaston Oaks are like proud grandparents, and they are thrilled at how the building they provided is now being used for Kingdom purposes.”
For some historic churches, the glory years continue to fade into memories. For others, they are looking in new places for different kinds of glory yet to come. NFJ
By John D. Pierce