Decatur church celebrates its first century

Pastor Melanie Vaughn-West and Farmer examine a board of photos of the church’s Cuban ministry. Photo by Kathy Mitchell
Pastor Melanie Vaughn-West and Farmer examine a board of photos of the church’s Cuban ministry. Photo by Kathy Mitchell

 

100 year-old Oakhurst Baptist church says of its years of turmoil and controversy, ‘By God we’re still here’

America’s social landscape has changed markedly during the past 100 years. Oakhurst Baptist Church, which celebrates its centennial this year, has in many ways been a microcosm of that change. The unassuming brick building at Third Avenue and East Lake Drive offers few clues to the controversies that have raged within its walls over the years.

Started as a Southern Baptist Church, Oakhurst Baptist held its first services in a tent. By the 1920s, parishioners had begun meeting in a wood frame building they called “the shed” or “the shack.”

Outside of buildingBy the 1930s, there were plans for a grand building with a high steeple and smaller buildings to accommodate various church programs. Only the main building—without the steeple—was built and only it remains of the original building. “We’ve always been a church to care more about our missions than about our physical facility,” explained church historian Lynn Farmer, who was baptized there at age 7, left for a while as an adult, then returned.

Farmer noted that members are proud that the sign outside reads, “Oakhurst Baptist Church meets here.” The building, she explained, is only a meeting place. The church is its members.

The church grew peacefully until the 1960s when the neighborhood that surrounded it started to change. The pastor at the time sensed that change within the church was imminent and decided to move on. The new pastor was from Canada and was unconcerned that Black children were showing up for the church’s youth programs. But some members were alarmed. They started to ask what the church would do if the parents of these children came to worship services. Many were urging the pastor to call for a vote as to whether the church would allow Black worshipers.

“He said ‘absolutely not,’” Farmer recalled. “To vote on whether we allow people to worship here is to vote on whether we are the body of Christ.”

The church’s records report the events this way: “The Oakhurst congregation took a controversial stand in 1967 to welcome African-American members during a period of White flight. Afterwards, the 1,300-member congregation dropped to 500, and the church gave up plans for a new sanctuary, moving all of its activities from several new buildings back to its East Lake Drive location near today’s MARTA station. This decision allowed more resources to be used for missions than for construction.”

The decision to welcome integration rather than resist it helped define the direction of the church for decades to come. “In 1972, Oakhurst ordained its first two women deacons, and in 1974, the church ordained a female longtime educational director to the ministry, adding her to the pastoral staff. Several years later, Oakhurst again caught national attention when it offered the church property as bond for an ill, escaped Indiana inmate who had been living peacefully in Atlanta the prior 10 years,” the church records state.

Troubled times had just started; the once fashionable Oakhurst-East Lake area went into serious decline. East Lake was home to what many called the worst public housing development in America. East Lake Meadows was notorious for drugs, crime and poverty.

By 1980, according to the church, “houses surrounding the church were sold for $1 by the federal government to encourage home ownership. Through these years, the church resettled refugees, tutored children, gave refuge to the homeless, and advocated for peace, justice, literacy, and other causes.”

But it was the decision to change its covenant to include anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, that moved the Georgia Baptist Convention to oust Oakhurst Baptist in 1999. “We were disfellowshiped,” said Melanie Vaughn-West, who now co-pastors the church with Lanny Peters.

“We did not leave them; they left us,” Vaughn-West explained. “We had hoped to bring a more enlightened view to the Southern Baptists, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Today the church proudly displays is covenant in the sanctuary for all to see. “We don’t want it hidden away in a hymnbook or in some seldom-seen document. We want everyone who enters to know who we are. We want everyone to know that we believe that the scripture that says, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’(Galatians 3:28)  means that Christ’s church is open to all,” Vaughn-West said.

The church continues to choose difficult, often controversial ministries such as mission trips to Cuba. The tag line the church as chosen for its centennial sums up the church’s spirit: “By God we’re still here.”

The church held a centennial celebration the weekend of Sept. 21-22. Events included an art and church history display, a mission project, storytelling and memory sharing, an evening of performing arts a Centennial Worship Service and more.

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