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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Swept up by the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Historic Baptist church welcomes visitors with smiles, hugs and music

Jan 03, 2009
By Pat Brennan, special to "The Star"


ATLANTA – Canadians rolling down I-75 to escape winter won't likely find a warmer welcome than at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

It's the church of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the edge of downtown Atlanta. Attending a Sunday service there is like going to a rock concert.

A new church was built directly across the street from the old red-brick church where the civil rights leader preached, as did his father before him and his father before that – and from where he was buried following his assassination in April 1968.

King's boyhood neighbourhood, including his old church, is a National Historic Site.

The main symbol of his exuberance for life, his passion for music and fellowship in the quest for equality in the U.S. has simply moved across the street to the new building.

Everyone is welcome at Ebenezer Baptist Church, you'll have no doubts about that.

At the 11 a.m. Sunday service visitors are asked to stand up. There's usually about two dozen in the congregation of 650 – and they get swarmed by those sitting nearby with warm handshakes, wide-smile greetings and hugs. These are Southern Black Baptists, so you know there's going to be joyous music. The choir of 21 mature men at the front of the church leads off the singing, but soon everybody chimes in.

Ushers greet you at the front entrance. They're tall black men wearing black suits and white gloves. If they have hair, it's usually grey or white. They hand you a program and let you find your own pew.

These men also pass the collection plates later in the service and after every few rows they dump the contents into a large wicker basket carried by an elderly woman.

The sermon will likely be as lively as the music. On a recent Sunday morning Rev. Dale Roberts talked about the economic meltdown and how the federal government was helping out Wall Street, but forgetting about "the side streets, where many of our brothers are sleeping in the cold."

Rev. Roberts told his congregation we all have burdens and they are going to get heavier before they get lighter. He said that, for some in the congregation, their greatest burden is probably sitting right there beside them. There was lots of "Amen" to that.

He also reminded everyone that God has offered His broad shoulders to help carry our burdens and we should take Him up on His offer.

There was no fire and brimstone in the sermon, no admonishing us for our sins or lecturing on our need for changes. It was all about the joy of life, the abundance of hope and a reminder to say thanks for all that we do have. And the music rolled on.

Next door to the church is the Martin Luther King Jr. visitor centre,open seven days a week with free admission.

Today King's remains and those of his wife Coretta, who died in January 2006, rest in a marble crypt on an island in a long, reflecting pool stretching between King's former church and The King Center. King's boyhood neighbourhood has been restored with parks, ball diamonds, a library, new schools, new housing . It includes his family home at 501 Auburn Ave. The historic neighbourhood and Ebenezer Baptist Church are only two blocks off I-75 (take the Freedom Parkway) where it passes through downtown Atlanta, a route many thousands of Canadians will follow this winter.

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