In Luke 9, when Samarian villagers refuse to lodge Jesus and his disciples and James and John want to pray for heavenly retribution, Jesus rebukes them for their anger. The passage ends simply: “And they went to another village.”
This passage defines the mission of the Rev. William Givens, lead pastor of the Buckhead Baptist Church, said to be the only Black pastor leading a historically white Buckhead church.
Givens can’t confirm the claim, but he lives to confirm the passage from Luke.
He spent his early years in South Georgia, in a church-going family with a mother who taught love and acceptance and a stepfather who was a preacher.
“We went to Black churches. White people went to White churches,” he said.
For him, that was just how it was until sixth grade, when his two best friends, Forrest, who was White, and Bubba, who was Black, encountered racism head on.
“They went to Forrest’s church together, and the church asked Bubba to leave,” he said.
In ninth grade, it was his turn. With 50 cents from his mother, he made his first solo shopping trip to the local convenience store.
“I guess it took me a little too long to choose between the chili cheese corn chips and a pie,” he said. “I got to the register and remember being so happy with my chips, the first time buying them on my own.”
His joy was short-lived.
“The cashier asked me, ‘What else?’ I said I didn’t have anything else. The man behind her told me to empty my pockets or he would call the cops,” he said. “We didn’t have much but our name and our word, so I emptied my pockets.”
It was 20 years before he ate those chips again and five before he told his mother.
Flash forward a few years. With no intention of entering the ministry, he joined the National Guard and entered college, where as “one of 11 Black kids on campus,” he frequently experienced subtle and overt racism. One day everything changed for him.
“At a church service where a pastor was praying for me, I saw a dove descend from the ceiling onto his hand,” he said. “I felt peace hit my body, forgave everyone for everything, and haven’t felt any animosity since.”
In 2008, as the religious life beckoned, he and his wife Gloria, who is white, decided he should accept a scholarship for a master of divinity degree from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
In 2010, he became an intern at Buckhead Baptist Church, then a predominantly White church. All was good until 2011, when he became associate pastor.
Church members during that time remember turmoil. “Some wouldn’t attend if they knew he was preaching,” said Diane Irby, a member since 2008, “but when he preached, he always gave a great message.”
In 2014, the congregation voted him lead pastor. “That’s when people walked out,” said Irby. “Now he’s drawing a lot of young families, and we’re very mixed.”
A member of one of those families is Kamesha Gray.
“I’m in awe of his strength,” she said. “A congregation walked out on him because of what he looked like. But he kept preaching love, and Gloria stood by his side every single Sunday.”
On Aug. 30, everything Givens stands for came to fruition during a Service of Reconciliation.
To start, Thomas Hammond, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, read an official apology by the Southern Baptist Convention dating from 1995 for its historical oppression of African Americans.
According to a longtime White member of the church, Givens’ response was what everyone was hoping for.
“I’ve heard of other reconciliation services that devolved into corporate guilt trips. This one was Biblically based,” said J.C. Davis. “We resolved as a church to repent of the sins of our forefathers and work hand in hand with the mission of the Lord.”
Like Jesus in Samaria, Givens called for moving forward to “the next village” and recounted the ways he has seen racism evolving, with examples from his own life, on which he expanded during a phone call with me.
“A couple of years ago, I was deciding on whether or not to purchase a convenience store. That’s a long way from the ninth-grader with the 50 cents,” he said. “I genuinely believe good is happening now. We need to notice those things and be a part of that change.”
Givens believes the answer is love, not hate, and there’s only one way to get there.
“We covenant not to look back, but to move forward,” he said.
Services at self-described “most loving church on the planet” are Sundays at 11 a.m. at 4100 Roswell Road and live-streamed on the website at buckheadbaptist.org.