The exterior walls of Virginia-Highland Church hold messages that immediately separate this place of worship from most of its Atlanta peers. One sign beautifully draped in the colors of the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag, reads “A Just World For All,” while another reads in part, “At This Church, We Believe Black Lives Matter.”
Between those signs, sits a multi-colored piano with a popular quote from civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” The piano is casually played by neighborhood children and adults throughout the day, said Jeff Ayers, director of worship for the church since 1995. “They drop by and play it all the time.”
In the sanctuary, there is another sign: “Virginia-Highland Church, an Inclusive Community of Faith.”
And that is how Ayers, Pastor Matt Laney, and the church leaders want it “One hundred years means we’ve survived change,” Ayers said with a broad smile. “We have lost a lot of Intown churches in the last decade.”
A Community Parish
Virginia-Highland Church sits just off Virginia Avenue in the heart of the neighborhood with its broad steps welcoming community members of all faiths inside. The church, which was established in 1923 and moved to its current home in 1950, has been affiliated with United Church of Christ since 2002. The church left the Southern Baptist Convention 30 years ago.
“Good morning from Virginia-Highland Church where Black Lives Matter, women’s reproductive rights matter, and children are seen and heard,” Ayers proclaimed at a recent Sunday service.
“It’s a real blessing and a gift to be at this historic milestone considering how far this church has come,” said Laney, who has been pastor for five years.
Despite its location, Laney said its congregation is from all over North Georgia. “A number of congregants come to service from as far as Athens, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Smyrna and Stockbridge,” he said.
Michael Jackson, a member of the church’s parish council lives in Kennesaw and said he encourages the church to continue connecting not only with people in Georgia but across the country.
That said, being a spiritual home in the heart of Virginia-Highland means a lot to Laney and Ayers. “We hope that we are a part of the center of community life, even more so during these times,” said Laney.
“During the beginning of Covid, the church went totally online via Zoom and Facebook Live,” Ayers said. “It just feels much more worshipful to be in the community and be together.”
The recent Sunday service this reporter attended had a multigenerational, multiracial congregation led by Candace Rowell, who was filling in for Laney. Rowell is on track to be ordained in the United Church of Christ – something that would not be possible under the roof of many southern churches.
Virginia-Highland Church leans towards inclusion, not only in who can serve the public from the pulpit, but also in what they can talk about. During Rowell’s service, she invited children to come up and help lead breathing exercises. The kids closed their eyes and thought of positive things while breathing in through their noses and out through their mouths. The entire congregation joined them.
Later in the service, as part of the All Saints Day celebration, there was a video montage of people who died this year – Angela Lansbury, Betty White, Queen Elizabeth II, Sydney Poitier, Leslie Jordan, Dan Reeves and Vince Dooley. The victims of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas were also included in the montage, as well as local members of the church and community. As a violinist played over the montage, the congregation wept.
During Communion, a gluten-free option for the bread was offered to guests who preferred it. “So all can feel welcome,” said Ayers.
Looking To The Future
Following Sunday service there was a community meeting to further inform congregants about plans beyond the 100th birthday celebration. A countdown clock sits near the lectern keeping track of the days, hours, and minutes until the church officially turns 100.
There are plans to begin a fundraising campaign in order to raise $1.5 to $2.5 million for interior and exterior renovations on the church and add staff.
“This church is capable of pulling this off,” said church member Janis Edwards, a member of the visionary team. “It’s been a long process and I believe there’s some divine inspiration in it.”
Rev.Faye Codding, a member of the parish council, added that the church will be looking to hire an associate minister, community liaison, and social media manager in the near future as part of the future plans.
“One of the gifts this church has is to be able to employ these people right out of college,” said Ayers. “I remember those jobs [in churches] were very rare if you were gay. That’s the gift we have here.”