7 churches, 1 building

Part two of our Every Day Is Sunday series
spotlights a Clarkston church that offers
a reflection of Atlanta’s religious diversity

The routine begins every Saturday afternoon with a Burmese Seventh-day Adventist service. Twenty-seven hours later, on Sunday night, it all ends when the Christian Protestants from Zo Immanuel Church finish their weekly service.

In between, five additional Christian congregations — Light Mission Pentecostalists from Central Africa, Nepalese Free Methodist Believers, Mara Community Church from Myanmar, Bethlehem Eritrean Church andClarkston United Methodist Church, the host— all conduct separate worship services, Sunday school and Bible study sessions at the same red brick church in DeKalb County.

“This is another form of a megachurch, within one church,” Clarkston UMC senior pastor Karen Lyons said about the innovative arrangement at the church, which was founded more than 130 years ago.

It’s also a unique window into a phenomenon that’s playing out in metro Atlanta: As the rest of the country is becoming more secular, religion remains hugely important here and is becoming increasingly more diverse.

Just over half of adults surveyed nationwide by Pew Research in 2014 say religion is “very important” in their lives. That’s compared to 64 percent in Georgia and 59 percent in metro Atlanta.

The Deep South has always been a place of deep — if mostly monolithic — faith. But the growth in the number of different faith groups and people of faith is outpacing even the region’s robust population growth.

Nevertheless, as recent controversies over proposed “religious liberty” bills and a mosque in Newton County underscore, the process of getting along isn’t always easy.

“So much has changed and the explosion of diversity (of faiths) is profound,” said Gary Laderman, chairman of Emory University’s Department of Religion. “Still, there are episodes and events and experiences at times that help people to remember, whatever Atlanta may be at the moment, it’s still deeply connected to the South.”

Perhaps that’s what makes the Clarkston UMC experience so remarkable.

Tsega-Gebremichael kisses her 7-month-old son Amaneal while the Eritrean congregation holds its worship service in the small chapel inside the Clarkston United Methodist Church on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016.

Established in 1879, Clarkston UMC’s first home was a one-room wooden structure constructed on the same spot where today’s red brick, steepled church stands. A membership of about 60 built that first church. In the years that followed, it outgrew its facilities several times and saw its membership soar to about 900 about a half-century ago. The current sanctuary building opened in 1961.

In the 1970s, Clarkston started to change from a more rural and mostly white suburb located a bit outside the Perimeter to an increasingly diverse community of renters, middle-class homeowners and additional commuters to jobs in and around Atlanta. Some of the residents they replaced moved farther out into the suburbs — a trend that continued in the early 1990s when MARTA opened its first train station outside the Perimeter and aid agencies began resettling large numbers of refugees in Clarkston.

Some of those changes account for the declining numbers at Clarkston UMC, where the current membership is about 235. Even longtimers who’ve stayed were affected, Lyons said.

“It’s almost like stained glass, in that their lives have been a little splattered, in that it’s not like the way it used to be,” said Lyons, who became Clarkston UMC’s first African-American female pastor after serving as associate pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Alpharetta. “They’ll say, ‘I wish you could have seen it, so you could know what it was like.’ I (say) ‘I have been received.’ So, change is good. It’s good for all.”

For all seven of the churches in one.

“Clarkston United Methodist Church is still open,” DeVon Thomas remarked pointedly during her sermon message at the “traditional” 11 a.m. service one Sunday in mid-September. “And our partner congregations have doubled in size.”

Photo: The Burmese congregation holds its worship service in the sanctuary at Clarkston United Methodist Church following the Methodist worship on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016.

Thomas, who chairs the church’s staff-parish relations committee, delivered her message inside the church’s light-filled main sanctuary, where thick red carpeting and traditional polished wooden pews seem right at home against a colorful backdrop of flags from 10 different countries. No sooner had that Clarkston UMC service ended a little past noon when the pews began to quickly fill up with members of the Mara Community Church.

That church had started out holding its Burmese language services in a small house that Clarkston UMC owns right across the street. But Mara’s congregation outgrew the house’s capacity of about 60 people and moved over to the much bigger sanctuary.

Photo: The choir of the Light Mission Pentecostal Church performs during their church service in the basement at Clarkston United Methodist Church.

Even as the Mara members were filing in, the sound of drums and guitar music coming from downstairs in McCord Hall signaled the arrival of members of Light Mission Pentecostal Church. The only “partner congregation” at Clarkston UMC when Lyons arrived as senior pastor in June 2014, they were also meeting across the street. Now, they frequently run out of folding chairs in the larger assembly hall as upward of 140 members attend the Sunday service rich in music and personal testimony.

Like the other partner congregations at Clarkston UMC, Light Mission Pentecostal is almost entirely made up of refugees — in this case, people who’ve fled war and persecution in four Central African nations. In that sense, it’s different from other local churches. In other ways, though, the partner congregations seamlessly weave into metro Atlanta’s increasingly devout and diverse religious fabric.

Results from the 2014 Pew study show that 42 percent of adult Georgians and 41 percent of metro Atlantans attend church at least once a week, compared to 36 percent nationwide. Religion is the No. 1 source of “guidance on right and wrong” for 45 percent of Georgians and 44 percent of metro Atlantans polled. Nationally, it ranked 33 percent, second to “common sense.”

Meanwhile, the universe of religions continues to expand here. A 2010 U.S. Religion Census found there were 152 separate faith groups in Georgia, up from 94 in 2000 and 75 in 1990.

The faithful themselves keep multiplying in number, too, most notably in metro Atlanta, where it’s outpacing population growth.

From 2000 to 2010, the total number of “adherents” rose in every metro Atlanta county, according to the U.S. Religion Census. Perhaps even more significant, their penetration rate — that is, the percentage of the overall population affiliated with congregations — grew by at least 3 percentage points, including a whopping 12 percentage points in DeKalb, home to Clarkston UMC.

Photo: Pastor Dawit Habtemicael with his 2-year-old son, Senay, in the chapel at Clarkston UMC after conducting a recent Sunday morning service. His church, which follows the Wesleyan doctrine, conducts its services almost entirely in Eritrean. Photo by Jill Vejnoska/jvejnoska@ajc.com

That trend doesn’t surprise Emory’s Laderman, who says major metro areas are the likeliest places to attract newcomers seeking economic opportunity, cultural and religious tolerance and other things associated with a better life. Indeed, he attributes the growing number and diversity of people of faith here in part to “the real rise in the number of immigrants from different parts of the world.”

That’s what’s been happening at Clarkston UMC. Pastors and other leaders of would-be partner congregations kept approaching her and saying, “God has sent us. Can you make space for us?” Lyons recounted.

For some, the weekly services are a chance to “hear the word of God” and reconnect with religion as they experienced it back home, Light Mission Pentecostal’s pastor, Callixte Safari, a native of the Congo, said through a translator (a church member who himself is from Burundi). For others, it’s a chance to do something they couldn’t do back home — worship freely.

“Our church was being persecuted (in Eritrea),” Pastor Dawit Habtemicael of Bethlehem Eritrean Church said after a recent 11 a.m. service, conducted primarily in Eritrean, in Clarkston UMC’s more intimate-sized chapel.

The Eritrean congregation holds its worship service in the small chapel inside the Clarkston United Methodist Church.

Photo: The Light Mission Pentecostalists hold worship service in the basement at Clarkston United Methodist Church on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016.

For the host church, meanwhile, there are some practical benefits to the arrangement. The partner congregations pay rent, which helps to pay for some of the upkeep on Clarkston UMC.

So why doesn’t Clarkston UMC just fold its partner congregations into its own to enlarge its ranks?

That’s not realistic and beside the point, said Lyons. She’s more interested in modeling a way of creating community by providing a place where people can come together and worship in their own styles.

Several times a year, Lyons invites pastors from the partner congregations to attend or preach at Clarkston UMC’s “traditional” Sunday service. And once a month, the spectacular choir from Light Mission Pentecostal sings at that same service.

The support goes both ways: Lyons sometimes shows up at various “partner” services. At a recent Light Mission Pentecostal Church service, she joined church leaders up front and led the congregation in a prayer.

It’s a simple concept, really, Lyons said. “It’s inclusivity and diversity working together.”

International flags hang with the American flag representing international unity and all cultures in the sanctuary at Clarkston United Methodist Church as members join hands during the benediction on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016.


Sunday may be the prominent day of worship in Atlanta, but that’s changing as a growing number of other religions establish congregations in our global city. This is an occasional series that examines how religion impacts life in Atlanta.

Part one is a photo essay that examines the changing religious landscape of metro Atlanta.

► Identifying ourselves by religion and politics
► Atlanta’s growing number of nonbelievers