It’s always wonderful when an editor gives you the green light to photograph a project you’ve pitched; When they take a chance on your vision and trust that you will tell the complete story (or at least they hope you will). Such was the case recently when I photographed the last days of Friendship Baptist Church at its historic location at the corner of Atlanta’s Mitchell Street and Northside Drive. Above: Sula Burr, a Friendship Baptist visitor, arrived a couple hours early to ensure she had a seat for the final service on May 25, 2014.
***This is the first of a two-part series about my coverage of Friendship Baptist Church’s last service in its historic sanctuary and the demolition of its buildings to make way for the new Atlanta Falcons stadium, set to open in 2017. This project was shot for The New York Times and published on Monday July 18, 2014.
Friendship accepted an offer of $19 million from the City of Atlanta last year for the patch of red clay where the church has been holding services since 1871. Mt. Vernon Church, which sat right behind Friendship, was razed earlier this year after it also accepted money from the City ($14 million) for the same purpose.
But Friendship was different than Mt. Vernon — It held the history of a people. Founded in 1866 by former slaves, Friendship is Atlanta’s oldest black church. Spelman College was founded in its basement in 1881, and Morehouse College held classes there after moving to Atlanta from Augusta in 1879. Friendship’s roots run deep.
I pitched the story to Jeff Furticella, a photo editor in the sports department at the Times a few days before the church’s last service at this location. Jeff (who I’ve worked with on other projects), discussed how to best tell this story. While photos from the service itself were obviously important, photographic reportage of the pastor preparing for the sermon could really pull the reader into to the human side of the story.
Friendship prides itself in only having six pastors in its 150+ years as a church (a portrait has yet to be rendered for the sixth pastor, The Rev. Dr. Timothy Tee Boddie). The church’s interim pastor, The Rev. Dr. William McCall, did not give the final sermon; that privilege was given to The Rev. Dr. William Guy, Friendship’s fifth pastor, who guided the church from 1971-2007.
Above: Dr. Guy (second from right) prays with church elders before delivering his sermon. Clockwise, from left: deacon Charles M. Evans, the Rev. Charles W. Washington, and Clara Gillis. Dr. Guy walks past his portrait as heads to the sanctuary.Jasmine Guy (center), star of the 80s and 90s show A Different World, is the daughter of Dr. Guy. She was one of a few celebrities in attendance.I wasn’t the only one documenting the service, several local TV stations were there as well.Dr. McCall and the congregation (below) reverently listen to the final playing of the church’s organ. It gives me cold chills now just thinking about how powerful those pipes sounded, how the deep sounds vibrated the air, the souls of everyone inside the sanctuary. As I took the photo above, the man standing beside me was moved to tears. I so badly wanted a photograph of this moment, his clinched fist shaking as tears rolled down his long cheeks. But this was a moment I didn’t want to disturb, to distrupt. I simply watched, felt, and empathized with this beautiful man instead of pointing my camera in his face. I think my memory of that moment is more powerful than any photograph I could’ve taken. Kelli Bacote, 44, who was baptized at Friendship, has been a member her entire life. Dr. Guy takes his rob off for the final time at 437 Mitchell Street.
Friendship has purchased land a few blocks from its previous location and will be rebuilding there over the next couple of years. In the meantime, the church will hold services at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse. More of this will be detailed in my second blog entry about Friendship, which will be published on August 26, 2014.