A group of Buckhead faith leaders, inspired by former Mayor Sam Massell, convinced 15 congregations to join in a common prayer for “Atlanta Together” unity on the May 19-20 weekend.
A total of 30 faith leaders from those 15 houses of worship signed onto the call for the prayer. The congregations were mostly in Buckhead, but included two historic Civil Rights bastions: The Temple, a Midtown synagogue, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s congregation in Sweet Auburn.
While Massell said he hoped more congregations would sign on, he called the event “tremendously successful” in terms of thousands of people hearing the unity message. He delivered a brief prayer himself at Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church that Sunday. Among those hearing the message was bestselling novelist Emily Giffin, who posted the prayer as handed out at St. James United Methodist Church on her Facebook page, saying it was a “citywide Atlanta prayer that our whole nation can share.”
To Massell, the effort is another facet of the “Atlanta Together” theme he has pushed since last fall’s close and bruising election between now Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Buckhead’s Mary Norwood, and other municipal elections. Bottoms spoke on the theme in January at the annual meeting of the Buckhead Coalition, the business group that Massell now heads and which endorsed Norwood in the campaign, and went on to speak of “One Atlanta” in her “State of the City” address earlier this month.
“There’s a lot of bitterness that hangs in the air from the elections…The bitterness is very deep this time, for some reason,” said Massell. He said the tension highlights divides that are “racial, religious, geographical…and also financial, rich versus poor.”
“If the faith community can’t do this, no one can,” he said of the unity effort.
Keeva Kase, president and CEO of the Buckhead Christian Ministry, a homelessness prevention organization, agreed to lead the prayer effort. He’s an ordained minister and his organization is a coalition of 30 member churches, so the idea was he could be a neutral party.
“It’s about reminding all Atlantans that we have kinship, not only as children of God, but as children of Atlanta,” said Kase.
Kase said that Massell “was wise in asking our houses of worship to lead this effort, and it is now incumbent on the faith community to choose and model solidarity going forward. What we choose to do next is critical.”
However, Kase and Massell had hoped to get far more congregations on board and endorsements from Bottoms and Norwood, both of whom did not respond to comment requests. And Norwood’s former campaign treasurer, Jamie Ensley, blasted the prayer in a Facebook post after news reports that the Georgia Secretary of State’s office is investigating reports of irregularities in the mayoral election.
“Now is not the time to pray for unity with the real possibility that the mayoral election was a fraud and so is Keshia [sic] Lance Bottoms as mayor,” Jamie Ensley wrote on a Reporter Newspapers Facebook post about the unity effort.
Massell called Ensley’s comments “disappointing” and said they made some people “very upset,” and said he was glad that Norwood did not respond to them. Massell emphasized that the prayer was not just about political unity, but economic, racial and other forms as well.
Post-mayoral political unity already has not gone well so far in Buckhead. Norwood, in her first public post-election comments, claimed the neighborhood doesn’t get its fair share and that south Atlanta contributes little in taxes; Bottoms’ office later blasted those comments as a way to “stoke division when we should focus on unity.”
The prayer effort involved most religious leaders delivering the same, 341-word prayer of unity that weekend, and also signing onto a written copy.
“Help us to be an outward-focused people who are concerned for one another and unified in our concern for the well-being of every Atlantan,” read the prayer in part. “…We ask that you heal deep divides by creating new and lasting bonds of kinship across the city. We ask that you unite our great city in ways previously unimagined that will bring prosperity, wellness and a sense of belonging to every Atlanta resident. We pray for the unity of your children in this great city. We pray for an Atlanta Together, this day and forevermore.”
Rev. David Richards, the pastor at New Hope AME Church, said it was “critical” for his church to join the movement as the only historic African-American church in Buckhead.
“We have to stay focused on keeping this city together,” said Richards, who spoke about the effort at a conference of north Georgia churches that weekend.
Rabbi Neil Sandler of Ahavath Achim, one of the signatories, explained his participation in an email sent during a trip to the “Capitol of divisiveness,” Washington, D.C., saying he sees value in a statement of solidarity from Buckhead congregations.
“Our own community may not reflect such strong degrees of political divide, but there is more than a hint of it,” Sandler said. “I resonate to what I think is one of the primary messages of the ‘Atlanta Together’ prayer — a recognition that amidst our differences, there must be a sense of unity that informs how we speak in the political realm about and to each other.”
–Evelyn Andrews contributed