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Authentic Faith-Based Initiative

Rev. Joseph L. Roberts

     ... senior pastor, Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. Since 1975, Dr. Roberts has led the church once served by Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr. Dr. Roberts has degrees from Union and Princeton Theological Seminaries. He formerly held administrative positions in the Presbyterian Church, U.S., and led two congregations in New Jersey. His civic, social and religious honors are many. At Ebenezer, Dr. Roberts has launched an expansive community outreach program and led the congregation in adding the new Horizon Sanctuary to the Heritage one.


Faith, like life and creativity, is a risk with a grave alternative, according to Dr. Joseph L. Roberts, Jr. If we become hidebound trying to be safe, we die. Dr. Roberts is senior minister at the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, the church Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made famous.

Dr. Roberts honors but does not live in the past. People come to Ebenezer because of Dr. King's life, Dr. Roberts is convinced, not to visit a mausoleum. For more than two decades, Dr. Roberts has been carrying forward the work of building community, feeding bodies as well as souls in this neighborhood Dr. King never abandoned.

Dr. Roberts does not sit back and wait for consensus to happen, either in his neighborhood or in the Atlanta metropolitan community. He acts. Take the risk, he counsels. He has. And he says he's been dumbfounded by ways the Lord and other people have shown him how he was wrong. But he never stopped. The result is today's Ebenezer, a vibrant local community of faith that welcomes the world.

Dr. Roberts works to strengthen the existing institution by embodying relationships. He boldly led his congregation in funding and building the church's widely praised new Horizon Sanctuary. It is meant to create the experience of an African meeting house, focused on community. Across the street from the traditional Heritage sanctuary, the Horizon is increasingly drawing the metropolitan Atlanta community into the heart of the city, along with urban professionals coming back into the city to live.

Now Dr. Roberts wants an Educational Community Services Resource Center to continue the Horizon work. He hopes to retrofit part of an existing building to better meet increasingly urgent needs familiar in any inner city -- homeless, hungry people desperate for health care or adequate day care or clothes or a shower or just old and poor.

Dr. Roberts sees us all as part of a larger, dynamic continuum that creates history. When movement solidifies into orthodoxy, it must be challenged. Again and again and again. Today, he says, the problem with American integration is that America tries to bring people of different colors together rather than bringing together people of kindred values. And there are no permanent fixes. People's interactions are always in flux.

Dr. Roberts' vision, like Dr. King's, embraces the world. Tribalism of any stripe offends him, in Bosnia or the Middle East or at home in the USA, where he says "rah-rah patriotism" keeps Americans from analyzing why they are hated. If America is a super-power but does not have good values, Dr. Roberts wants to know just how powerful America is? Dr. King, never a "race man," asked the same question about Vietnam.

From the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church's pulpit and around the world, Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated the need to re-form America, to move away from its unjust orthodoxies. Joseph L. Roberts Jr. holds high that same torch, reaching forward to guide people on a path toward community that is wide enough to hold us all.

[This Program was recorded June 5, 2002, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Conversation 1

astor Joseph Roberts tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about the past, present and future of this singular Church. People come to this place because Dr. King lived, not to visit a mausoleum, Dr. Roberts says. He expands.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:41

Conversation 2

Dr. Roberts describes the envisioned "Educational Community Services Resource Center," and explains why it will be named for Martin Luther King, Sr., Dr. King's father. Dr. Roberts expands on the need for the many services the Center is designed to provide for needy people in this church which actively serves Atlanta's inner city. Dr. King never moved out of the heart of the poor community, Dr. Roberts reiterates. The subject of gentrification is considered at length, from a variety of perspectives, across the nation.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:46

Conversation 3

If "diversity" is ever to be taken seriously, Dr. Roberts says, empowerment must accompany it. He gives a series of examples of effectively doing so. He recalls the genesis of the new Horizon sanctuary (across the street from the Heritage one), then demonstrates how the Horizon is drawing together the larger metropolitan community with special events like Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performances. Dr. Roberts poses some hard questions about people's intentions. He moves on to note a series of relationships the Church is developing citywide and locally. He gives a verbal tour of the highly acclaimed Horizon sanctuary. It's "dangerous," he believes, for the faith community not to grapple with hard social and political issues.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:53

Conversation 4

It's very difficult for people to be benevolent and philanthropic when they have nothing, Dr. Roberts notes. He expresses concern about the current enthusiasm for the "prosperity gospel" on which many megachurches are based. He expands. Dr. King critiqued the Vietnam War on the principle of justice, with a theology much bigger than America's racism, says Dr. Roberts, certain that Dr. King was not a "race man." Dr. Roberts describes Dr. King's theology. The problem with America and integration, Dr. Roberts says, is in trying to bring together people of different colors instead of people of kindred values. He shuns false optimism. The idea of "static triumphalism" is explored.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:21

 Conversation 5

Correcting a misinterpretation of the Biblical story of Isaac and Ishmael, Dr. Roberts describes the unfolding of the Christian tradition from its Jewish roots. ÊHe gives examples of how his congregation works to get away from denominationalism, and considers the struggle of religion in today's world. He champions certain classic standards from across the ages. People's experiences influence their affinity for history, he believes, and expands. He calls Americans to examine why they are hated and questions how powerful any nation is if it has superior force but does not have good values.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:45

Conversation 6

Dr. Roberts compares approaches to how one accomplishes significant societal change. He gives examples of the distance America has yet to go to accomplish Dr. King's dream, confident that one must "go on" and hope that consensus will come as one moves. He calls people to engage in much needed societal work with a willingness not to get wedded to one's own vision of it. Faith, like creativity, is a risk, he says, confident that being too safe is deadly.

Conversation 1 RealAudio5:24


Mary Kay Williams, Dr. Roberts' very able assistant, was key to coordinating schedules so that this Conversation could take place. We are grateful for her competence, her ongoing encouragement and her ever-ready smile.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a united service is held annually at the Heritage and Horizon sanctuaries to celebrate Dr. King's life and work.

People from all parts of the world are welcomed to Sunday Services at the Horizon Sanctuary 400 Auburn Avenue, NE -- Atlanta, GA

Additional Links:

The National Park Service has background information on the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. There's also information about the restoration of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.

In his award winning trilogy, Taylor Branch provides a comprehensive history of  Dr. King and the Civil Rights era

Rev. Robin Meyers, Bishop John Shelby Spong and Rev. Jim Wallis offer additional Christian perspectives on the role of religion in our communities. Bruce Feiler presents a view from the Hebrew Bible. Alan Wallace's experience is in the Buddhist tradition.

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