ATLANTA (AP) — For decades, the red-bricked Gothic Revival church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached has been a monument to the history of Black Americans’ fight for civil rights and the legacy of an activist icon.
It took a high-stakes Senate race and a Trump-era cultural debate to thrust Ebenezer Baptist Church into the center of the current political debate.
Its senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, is running for the Senate in one of two runoff elections that could decide which party ultimately controls Congress in the first years of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden. But Warnock’s preaching has become a focal point in the debate about race and justice in the election.
His opponent, Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, has run attack ads using snippets of sermons Warnock preached from Ebenezer’s pulpit to accuse him of being a far left, radical socialist who doesn’t support police officers or military service members.
For King’s former church, the intense spotlight isn’t new. Its 6,000 members are accustomed to standing-room-only Sunday services, due in large part to the out-of-town visitors who flocked to the church. Still, Loeffler’s criticisms have renewed attention on a pillar of Black life in Atlanta and a tradition of political activism it represents.
“The Republican attack is not just against Warnock, it’s against the Black church and the Black religious experience,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta who served as assistant pastor of Ebenezer from 1978 to 1984.
McDonald describes Warnock’s views as consistent with the church’s opposition to racism, police brutality, poverty and militarism. Loeffler’s attacks include selectively edited portions of Warnock’s sermon in which he decries “police power showing up in a kind of gangster and thug mentality,” as a criticism of law enforcement practices that have historically driven a wedge between departments and Black residents.
“I don’t care what you think about Warnock,” he said. “We’ve got to defend our church, our preaching, or prophetic tradition, our community involvement and engagement. We’re going to defend that.”
Ebenezer is “Black America’s church,” McDonald added. ”It’s bigger than any individual.”
Loeffler has responded, saying in a tweet last month that she isn’t attacking the Black church. “We simply exposed your record in your own words,” she wrote in a reply to Warnock.
Commonly referred to as “Martin Luther King’s church,” Ebenezer sits in the middle of a national park dedicated to the civil rights icon’s life and legacy, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists annually. Warnock’s leadership at the church is his chief credential, a position so prestigious some note the U.S. Senate is a step down.
Warnock has continued to preach as he campaigns for office — albeit pre-recorded in an empty sanctuary, due to the pandemic. In a message delivered over the Christmas holiday weekend, he reflected on the challenge of keeping one’s faith in the midst of immense hardships.
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“In 2020, all of us have been living, it seems, in a pit,” Warnock said in a sermon broadcast from the church last Sunday.
“Hospitals full and schools closed. That’s a pit!” he preached. “Churches not able to worship together like we would like to on a Sunday morning. That’s a pit! Businesses closing and folks laid off. That’s a pit!”
The church has kept some distance from Warnock’s bid. Ebenezer declined interview requests for members of the pastoral staff. Instead, it issued a statement detailing its public ministry, including social services for the poor, elderly and formerly incarcerated people and more recently, free COVID-19 testing and flu shots.
“Ebenezer Baptist Church embodies the mission of Jesus Christ, through acts of service that strive to feed the poor, liberate the oppressed, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit those who are sick or imprisoned,” the church said in a statement emailed to the AP.
Before the abolition of slavery, the Black church has played a role in brokering congregants’ relationship to political power. It’s not uncommon for politicians, most often Democrats, to campaign from Black church pulpits. But it’s still relatively rare for church leaders to cross over into public office.
If he were elected, Warnock would be sworn into a small group of other ministers who have served in Congress, including at least one other Black pastor, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.
Within the last year, Ebenezer has been part of a few major national news events.
It hosted the funeral of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man fatally shot in the back by Atlanta police in June, amid nationwide protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May.
Warnock was an officiant for that service, and for the late July funeral of civil rights icon and Atlanta congressman John Lewis, who was an Ebenezer member.
“This church is situated at the heart of Atlanta and it’s leadership has always opened its doors to the community,” said Daunta Long, pastor of Seed Planters Church of God In Christ in McDonough, about 40 miles southeast of the city.
Balancing pastoral duties and a national public profile is a common source of tension, noted McDonald, the former assistant pastor. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was not present for the voting rights march now known as Bloody Sunday because he was expected to preach at Ebenezer for communion Sunday, the first sabbath of the month, according to Clayborne Carson, the historian who maintains King’s papers at Stanford University.
Ebenezer was founded in 1886. Its second pastor, the Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, brought on his son-in-law, Martin Luther King. Sr., as assistant pastor in 1927. His son, King Jr., co-pastored from 1960 to 1968.
The elder King, who served as pastor of Ebenezer for more than 40 years, continued in leadership after his son’s assassination in Memphis in 1968. The Rev. Joseph Roberts, Jr. became Ebenezer’s fourth pastor after King. Sr.’s retirement in 1975.
Warnock, who is Ebenezer’s fifth pastor in more than 130 years, was selected as Roberts’s successor in 2005.
Ebenezer’s members, many who support Warnock’s candidacy, say they worry about losing his leadership.
“People love him as their pastor,” said Xernona Clayton, 90, a King family confidante and member of the church since 1963. “I think selfishly they don’t want to lose him. They want the best of two areas: good representation in the political arena and a pastor in the pulpit.”
“I’d imagine both of those jobs would be full-time,” she added.