Ninety-five years ago on September 25, 1921, some 66 men and women signed a pledge to become charter members of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church out on the corner of Second Avenue and East Lake Drive. They met in a tent for a while. Their first building was a refurbished army barracks from Fort McPherson. None of the charter members is still alive, but the vision they created and built through God’s Spirit is still going and growing. Indeed it is has grown in ways that none of them could imagine. Eight years after they signed the charter, the Great Depression would begin, the worst in this country’s history. The church weathered that and kept going.
World War Two followed on the heels of the Depression, with millions killed around the world. Many Oakhurst members served in the armed forces, and the church weathered that. The Civil Rights Movement came in the 1950s and 1960s, and the church struggled mightily with that, but it survived. The Session voted in 1963 to allow African-American people to come into worship and become members. The church survived that vote – most white churches in the neighborhood did not survive such votes. The first African American person joined as a member here in 1970, and that came in the midst of full white flight from the neighborhood and the church. Our church lost 90% of its membership of 850 in about fifteen years, but because of God’s Spirit and the dedicated leadership of our ministers, our elders, our members and the Presbytery, the church survived again and even began to thrive.
We had many “firsts” here. The first stated clerk of the new and reunited PCUSA denomination (Jim Andrews) and his family were part of our church. The first and only African-American moderator of the former Southern Presbyterian denomination (PCUS) was pastor here when he was elected Moderator (Lawrence Bottoms). The first African American to be elected to the Decatur City Commission and only African-American mayor of Decatur (Elizabeth Wilson) is an elder here. The first African-American to serve on the DeKalb County Commission was an elder here while he served on the Commission (Nate Mosby).
In the mid-1990s, thanks to Christine Callier, we were discovered by Time Magazine and had a full page article on us in the April 1995 issue. Our church has been featured on NPR (twice), NBC News, CNN News, CBS Radio, the Christian Science Monitor, the AJC, and our story appears in many books and magazine articles. We were humbled to see our story featured in Chuck Foster’s book “We Are the Church Together: Cultural Diversity in Congregational Life,” published in 1996. Our denomination asked us to write our story as an invitation for engaging racial and multicultural issues, and it was published in 2003, entitled “O Lord, Hold Our Hands: How a Church Thrives in a Multicultural World.” Since the early 1980s we have trained over 50 seminary interns from Johnson C. Smith Seminary, Columbia Seminary, Candler School of Theology, and Princeton Seminary.
So, we have been through a lot, and our story is full of ups and downs and in-betweens. God’s Spirit has been with us and through us, sustaining us, challenging us, forgiving us, and leading us, sometimes in directions that we did not want to go. Our neighborhood has gone through a dramatic change once again over the last 15 years, and that puts us in a tremendous time of transition. Caroline retired in 2012, and I’ll be retiring at the end of this year. Many of our members are anxious about this change and wondering if we can survive, but let us remember our history – we’ve been through the Great Depression, the Great Recession, a world war, a devastating loss of membership, and we have survived and thrived – we can do this!
We will remember and celebrate our history and God’s faithfulness in our journey over these 95 years on the weekend of September 24-25. We thank our co-chairs, Ann Starks and Mitzi Moran, for their leadership in planning our celebration. Please plan to be with us!