Raymond Bernard Thrash was back in the balcony at Mount Vernon Baptist Church Sunday, once again doing something proper churchgoers would typically frown upon.
Fifty-odd years ago, when he was a boy, he sat there chewing bubble gum and eating candy _ “being a kid” - he recalled smiling broadly. Now, with worship services finished, he was taking snapshots of the place, and taking himself back in time.
Lots of church members joined Thrash in grabbing their final photos and thoughts of the Mount Vernon church building, which will soon fall to make way for a new football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons.
After 53 years at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Northside drives, the church held its final service there Sunday morning. It was a three-plus hour event marked by a choir that threatened to take the walls down itself, and by a sweet, sad exit processional in which the 200 or so who attended followed the Rev. R.K. Turner down the center aisle and out of the sanctuary, never to return.
Mount Vernon’s congregation last September voted to approve a $14.5 million agreement to vacate, clearing the way for the Falcons to build on the land, which is located just south of the Georgia Dome where they now play.
A second, older, historic black church, Friendship Baptist, which sits just across the street from Mount Vernon, sold for $19.5 million, and also will move.
The church will have to be cleared out by Friday, said Turner, who is entering his 11th year as pastor. Preparations, necessarily, are well underway. Even as he preached his sermon, construction crews outside were working in the neighborhood. The stadium is slated to open in 2017.
Beginning next Sunday, the Mount Vernon congregation will hold services in its new temporary home at Carver College on Cascade Road in Atlanta. Turner said he has no idea for how long _ “probably in the next few weeks we’ll have some conclusion.” But the goal, he said, is still to get back to its current neighborhood.
“That’s been our goal from the beginning. This is where our legacy is, and this is where we would like to continue,” he said. “But we’ll just have to see where it goes.”
For the time being, he hopes congregants follow him to Carver.
Three-year member Evelyn Keener said she will.
“At the end of the day, the church isn’t a building,” she said. “The people are the church.”
While congregants ate cake and sipped soft drinks in the church social hall afterwards, Turner took a positive approach when asked about the future.
“We’re encouraged,” he said. “We believe our congregation is ready to move forward. And we will carry on. We don’t look for a decrease in membership.”
In the sanctuary, a banner commemorating Mount Vernon’s 99-year history hung on the wall.
“We’ve come this far by faith,” it read.
Now, they will have go a little further.