I walked up to the church on the corner, its blue sign with neon tubes performing the simple task of identifying the building. Traffic passed by at regular intervals in phase with the stoplight. I’d parked on the side street just up from the corner, with my choice of three spots in a row. There was blue sky and the relative calm of a Saturday morning.
I stood by myself on Auburn Avenue, facing wood doors with a simple “open” placard. The wood doors hid everything inside, separating a city street from a sanctuary within. Clearly, I was in the right place. Yet at the same time I was surprised. Earlier in the day I’d seen the news: expectations for large protest marches in New York and Washington that would have been taking place at the very moment that I stood on that street corner. So I wondered if there was something more that I would experience when I passed the threshold. I pulled open the door and stepped in.
Inside, a solitary woman in the green pressed uniform of the National Park Service greeted me. Aside from her presence and an orderly arrangement of printed museum guides, I had just walked into a humble church entry. The quiet was sealed in as the wood door closed behind me, just the hint of a voice coming from somewhere within the sanctuary. But, really, it was just like walking into a church, which is exactly what it was.
Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta is the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor in the 1960s, and the space that hosted his funeral and the beginning of a massive procession across the city. I’d expected it to look something like it did in April of 1968, when the space and its surrounding streets would provide inadequate room and solace for mourners.
It was for these reasons that I wondered if my visit would be made inconvenient, even difficult, by crowds of demonstrators. In light of justifiable civil protest around the country, I could imagine the NPS checking for firearms, scanning for metal objects; and approaching the entry I’d wondered if I should have left my bag in the trunk of my rental car. But besides the NPS representative’s wide brimmed hat and some inconspicuous cameras I’d notice in corners later, there was no explicit enforcement or regulation. I was simply told to stay behind velvet ropes, but invited to make my way downstairs to the Fellowship Hall and then upstairs to the church sanctuary.
In the basement Fellowship Hall there were displays of text and photos, as well as a few relics, describing the history of the church and its significance. Only two of us were in the room, myself and a woman with a blanket and slumped over in a chair, seemingly getting some reprieve from the cold outside. Later the NPS ranger would walk by, tell the woman she couldn’t sleep here, and then leave her for the present moment.
The space was maintained with green painted supports and defined by alternating white and green tiles that looked to me exactly as they would have in 1968. The basement windows were high on the wall, and wood posts supported the first floor above the space. Black and white photos of the space many decades in the past looked exactly as now, with members of the congregation at tables that were strategically placed to accommodate the structural supports. But more than anything, it was that tile floor that struck me. It was the tile floor that could have held the footfalls of civil rights leaders and reverberated their discussions in that very space.
My shoes on those tiles made it feel that the stairwell was a portal into the civil rights movement. It wasn’t that there was anything extraordinary about the space, but the fact that it was altogether plain, and all the more real. These tiles coexisted with landing on the moon, with marching on Washington, with the voting rights act, with a sniper’s shot towards a hotel balcony in Memphis. These tiles hosted the feet that would walk down Auburn in a massive funeral procession; they supported youth learning how to protect the back of their head when they were being beaten. But most of all, these tiles and this space represent something much bigger than myself in that moment. They pulled me back in time.
I placed my own feet on those green and white tiles. The space took me in.
I walked back up the staircase, the same green and white tiles, back past the entry and up to the sanctuary of the church. It’s not a big church. It’s not a fancy church. It’s not the church that you’d walk into and remark on the majesty of the place. I’m used to National Parks that preserve the enormous and the physically remarkable. This place was not that. It was modest.
And, it was empty.
Or, I should say, the sanctuary was empty save anyone except for me and Dr. King and his congregation. Over the speaker system of the church, a sermon given from that very space filled the sanctuary. I took it in as best as I could in that moment, sitting down in a pew towards the back, among the congregation that I could imagine being there with me, facing the pulpit and the microphone that his words would have traveled through.
I imagined the sermon taking place during the Christmas season, coinciding with my own December visit, resonating themes of peace and goodwill towards men. It made reference back to the hot summer of 1963; it spoke of means and ends, of nonviolence in all our actions, in the connection that we each have to humans all over the world. It was all of these things, and more, all ringing clearly in that space. But it was also the pulpit with the microphone, exactly as it would have been. It was the sun oversaturating the stained glass. It was the simplicity of the rows of pews. It was the quality of the recording and the boom of the voice, together with the presence of the congregation in the recording — sometimes a cough, maybe a mumble, often a positive call-out of response — that made me feel present in that church not in 2014, but in 1964.
I can say with some confidence that this could have been one of those seminal moments in my life. I don’t really believe that we have “moments” so much as a continual build-up, reconstruction, evolution of our understandings. But sometimes there are some leaps, and this was one of them. It’s not so much the new fact or information, but the perspective. I needed to sit down in that pew, in that space, in that moment. I’d pushed the red button on my audio recorder, but after a few minutes I put it away, and I haven’t listened to it since. The message was important — and strikingly relevant even 50 years later — but that wasn’t where the meaning resided. The meaning was in the experience, the presence of myself in that space and in a context that I hadn’t known in any experience previous.
In my entire trip to Atlanta, the idea of how space is used was prevalent. There was the space necessary to experience how a whale shark swims. There was Brian’s use of an intimate space to interact personably with children and parents. There was an extension of a school’s space to the outdoors and to portable workshops in the back of a retrofitted truck, complete with drill press, band saw, 3D printer, and the like. And there was a community center and school that welcomed refugee populations from all over the world, mixing together. But it was a humble church on the street corner that especially made me reconsider the purpose and poignancy of space. I recently heard a talk by author Neil Gaiman, where he made an impassioned claim about our need for fiction writing. Fiction, he and so many others (including me) claim, allows us to learn empathy for others and to propel imagination. No doubt, we need more of this in our world, so read more fiction. But also, I’ve learned, create and put yourself into those spaces that push those same attributes. A simple church, even all to myself, had that potential.
The space taught me something else as well. I keep thinking back to the tile in the basement and the very commonplace church setting. The space had a profound impact on me, but there was nothing extraordinary about it in its size, construction, architecture, or setting. And yet this was the place we associate with the civil rights movement, historically and culturally significant in ways that continue to have repercussions today. That space had a humility that made me realize it could have been most any place. It wasn’t so much about what was there or where the “there” happened to be, but about how there is so much possibility in any such arena. You just have to get the right pieces and players involved. More importantly, there has to be a someone, a movement, and a vision. Those all require a space, and while the space is critical it doesn’t beget action. Space facilitates action. Any venue has that potential, but people went out of their way and dedicated (even sacrificed) their lives to determine that Ebenezer Baptist would be known as just such a space.
Dr. King finished his sermon, charging me and the faithful to promote justice and peace. I’m grateful that at the same moment, the thousands of demonstrators in other spaces were marching peacefully, creating a new public awareness of injustices and a new push for reform. And I’m glad, grateful, that I had the moment in the space of that church.