To this day, when Pastor Byron Broussard walks along Northside Drive in downtown Atlanta, past the block where Rising Star Baptist Church was once located, he shakes his head and remembers.
If Friendship Baptist was a church where the area’s black intelligentsia and elite worshipped, and Mount Vernon a gathering place for the working class, Rising Star Baptist was the welcomer of an eclectic and less prominent bunch: the poor, the rough-edged, those needing a safe place to shake off a troubled night, he said.
These days, all that remains of the church on Northside Drive are the steps. Rising Star was among the religious centers, homes and businesses that moved in the late 1980s to make way for the $214 million Georgia Dome and expansion of the Georgia World Congress Center, including the mammoth Building C. With them disappeared an entire neighborhood known as Lightning.
Now, the sports arena that sits atop Lightning is set to be demolished as a $1 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium emerges.
And this time, it’s Friendship Baptist and Mount Vernon Baptist that will be moving to make way.
“I’m embarrassed to say (what we sold for),” Broussard said, with a nod to the $14.5 million and $19.5 million deals Mount Vernon Baptist and Friendship Baptist churches, respectively, struck with city, state and Falcons officials.
Rising Star sold for $400,000, according state documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Even with it being in 1987, it was a paltry fraction of what it is was actually worth,” added Broussard, who was not the head of the church at that time.
While a student at Morehouse College, Broussard would sneak away to watch Rising Star’s colorful and raucous services. He didn’t know then that he’d one day lead its congregation.
The church spent more than $2 million to rebuild five miles away, renaming itself The Greater Rising Star Baptist Church, he said. (In another reincarnation, the name changed again to The Love Center Ministry.)
In many ways, the church counts itself fortunate. It moved, it survived and grew from a 400-member congregation to more than 3,000 today. But of the 150 members of the original congregation that followed Rising Star to its new home on Old Campbellton Road, maybe 30 remain, Broussard said.
“The move was a bit traumatic,” Broussard said. “Quite a bit of the populace from the original congregation did not make it through the transition.”
Now, more than 25 years after Rising Baptist agreed to sell, Broussard is among those watching to see what becomes of Friendship Baptist and Mount Vernon Baptist as they prepare to leave their historic homes.
Then and now
About 11 churches were moved to make way for the Georgia Dome and expansion of the convention center, according to state documents, though the projects were built a decade apart.
In addition to Rising Star, the churches that disappeared include Amanda Flipper Methodist, Groves Covenant Baptist and New Solomon Temple Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas.
The majority had tiny congregations — one had as few as eight members. None had the visibility or political muscle that Mount Vernon and Friendship flexed in recent stadium negotiations.
Each received more than their appraisal value. New Solomon, for instance, was appraised at $31,395, but received more than $118,000. Mount Zion Holiness Church of God, another church, had an appraised value of $35,500, but received almost $69,000. Rising Star was appraised at $308,000.
Rev. W.L. Cottrell, pastor emeritus of Beulah Baptist Church in nearby Vine City, said though none of the churches were condemned to make room for the Dome and convention center expansion, they felt immense pressure from city leaders to relocate.
“(Lightning) was washed out, and the churches were made to leave,” said Cottrell, who joined a group of pastors that fought to save Mount Vernon from the bulldozer and won. “Now we are about to do it again.”
Neither Friendship nor Mount Vernon leaders have publicly said they felt pressured to move.
And city officials, along with Falcons leaders, said throughout negotiations that the churches should make a decision in their own best interest and that eminent domain was not an option.
“I really think we have accomplished what we’ve accomplished in the Atlanta way,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said at a Sept. 13 press conference announcing a tentative deal with Mount Vernon.
The Falcons may announce soon where they intend to build the stadium. The “south site,” which is just yards from the Dome near the intersection of Northside and Martin Luther King drives, is all but assured.
(Whether state officials use eminent domain to obtain the remaining handful of small parcels needed for the stadium on that location remains to be seen.)
City officials have agreed to help Friendship Baptist and Mount Vernon find new property and are exploring land already owned by the city or Atlanta Housing Authority, Reed said last week.
Friendship and Mount Vernon leaders said they plan to stay in the community.
Lloyd Hawk, chairman of Friendship’s board of trustees, said knowing that they could land nearby was critical to striking the agreement with the city and the Falcons, he said.
“For us, it was one of the pieces that was non-negotiable,” said Hawk, who expects Friendship to announce where it is moving in 60 to 90 days. “We had to stay in the community.”
Friendship wants to remain in the area because its central proximity works well for its congregation, which hails from all parts of the metro area, including Canton, Fayetteville, Villa Rica and Lithonia, Hawk said.
“It would be much easier, much cheaper if we would move out to the suburbs,” he said. “But we have to remain strong and to do that we have to stay here.”
Mount Vernon Pastor Rodney Turner said in a Sept. 19 interview that the church is eyeing several locations in the Vine City, English Avenue and Mims Park areas.
“Ninety-eight years … we have been here and this is where we have anchored ourselves,” Turner said. “This is where the help is needed.”
Broussard applauded the churches for holding out for the deals they ultimately struck, noting money alone doesn’t help a church rebuild and grow elsewhere.
After Rising Star moved, it found itself in financial turmoil with building costs and changing membership, he said.
The previous pastor, The Rev. Walter Hall, left in the early 1990s and Broussard took the helm, later renaming the church “The Love Center.”
Broussard wishes Rising Star had held out for a better deal in the late 1980s, he said.
“Every time we pay bills and make mortgage payments … I flinch when I glance over at Northside Drive and say it could’ve been a sweatless victory,” he said. “But God allows things.”
Mount Vernon could have faced a similar fate had they sold in 1987 with Rising Star. The two churches were among those targeted to move to make way for the proposed Georgia Dome.
Then, more than 25 black Atlanta clergy members — including Cottrell — banded together in opposition to the location of the proposed Dome, claiming it would “demolish or disrupt” churches in the area.
While Rising Star had agreed to move, an impassioned Rev. S.A. Baker, then-head of Mount Vernon, stood his ground.
“Somebody’s going to see God before you see Mount Vernon church moved. You are not going to tear down that church without having to stand before God. You’ll see, you’ll see, ” the teary-eyed pastor said in the 1987 encounter.
Baker died in July 1993. Twenty years and two months later, Mount Vernon agreed to move.