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Oakhurst Presbyterian Turns 90

Pastor Nibs Stroupe, famous for "Black Jesus" and a commitment to diversity, tells how the church and community have changed.

, perhaps the most studied church in Georgia, celebrates its 90th birthday this weekend.

Numerous national publications – including Time magazine, The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor – have reported on the church’s dedication to racial diversity. Graduate and theological students have written scholarly papers about Oakhurst Presbyterian and the husband-wife team that leads it, Nibs Stroupe and Caroline Leach.

As many writers have noted, the church’s iconic image is “Black Jesus” -- the stained glass window looming over the choir loft.

In the late 1980s, Stroupe and Leach ordered a white Jesus in the window repainted black. They also changed two disciples at Jesus’s feet to black and, for good measure, added a woman disciple.

 “If we’re going to have people of color we need two Jesuses," Stroupe explained recently. "It’s been a powerful tool for us.”

Today the church has about 350 members, with about 40 percent of them African-American. Leach, 64, plans to retire next August, but Stroupe, 64 won't say when he'll step down.

"I'll be here a few more years," he said.

 

Patch asked Stroupe to write an essay about how the church and the Oakhurst neigbhorhood has change since he and his wife arrived in 1983. Here it is.

"Oakhurst Presbyterian Church is unremarkable on the outside, but the congregation on the inside is quite remarkable.  People from the most divergent backgrounds - middle class professionals, blue-collar and pink-collar workers, welfare recipients, old, young, and very young, black, white, Asian, gay and straight.  All seem to feel comfortable there and speak their minds."

These are words from Ted Clark doing a report on Oakhurst Presbyterian on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."  We are celebrating our 90th Anniversary on September 25, and we give thanks to God for Her faithfulness and grace in our lives together over these nine decades.  

We have known the movement of the city.  At its peak, Oakhurst Presbyterian had almost 900 members in the early 1960's.  When housing was demolished in Atlanta as part of the "urban renewal" to bring the Braves, Hawks and the Falcons to town, the displaced residents moved into the east Atlanta area which included Kirkwood and Oakhurst.

These displaced people were almost all African-American, and their movement into these areas triggered white flight, because most of us who are white do not believe that we can have a high quality of life when many African-American (and now Latino-American) people are in the neighborhood.

Over the last 40 years, Oakhurst Presbyterian has been in conversation with ourselves and with the community about the dividing walls in society - race, class, gender, sexual orientation, education level, culture, inaccessibility, and others.  In this journey, we have been surprised to learn that we have received great blessings through what we had been taught to fear.  

As we look on the other side of those dividing walls, we have found not the aliens we dreaded but rather the sisters and brothers for whom our hearts are longing.  We give thanks for the courage of those who stayed and of those who came, and we are now a diverse  multicultural church which welcomes all people in the name of God - there are no second class citizens.

As we celebrate our 90 years and look to the future, we notice that once again urban renewal has come the neighborhood, with the demolition of  East Lake Meadows Housing, displacing over 700 families so that East Lake Golf course could be restored and made to feel safe.  The Oakhurst neighborhood has gone from 90% black to 70% white in the last 15 years,  and we all find ourselves wondering what happened to the diversity.

 Movements of the city are like that, but there are also underlying causes that remain powerful forces in our individual and communal hearts.  We believe that it is our calling and privilege to be a part of the conversations around these issues.  In spite of the expanding communication networks, we are in a time of growing division in our society, and it is our heritage here at Oakhurst Presbyterian to be in the middle of conversations and actions which seek to help us understand the causes of our divisions and which seek to help us build bridges over those chasms.

 We invite you to join us in this exciting and vibrant journey! Check out our website at www.oakhurstpresbyterian.org.

Oakhurst Presbyterian will have “refreshments and memories” at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, at the church at 118 Second Ave., Decatur. A worship celebration will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 25.

derek September 24, 2011 at 05:11 AM
“If we’re going to have people of color we need two Jesuses," Stroupe explained recently. "It’s been a powerful tool for us.” yeah, he is a pretty powerful tool. still going strong, 2000 years old. all for you. It's disturbing what they say, i think.
Lynn Manfredi Petitt September 24, 2011 at 07:53 PM
Oakhurst Pres is a powerful place! If you want to make diversity feel safe, you have to have multiple images that helps every one of us see ourselves in the mix. Thanks for all you have done to help people of all backgrounds think beyond the box of color --even when they feel disturbed about it --especially when they feel disturbed about it. Keep on loving, keep on challenging the status quo and keep on keeping on! With deep respect for your message and for your place in Love's world, Lynn Manfredi/Petitt (former Board Pres. of Oakhurst Pres.' "New Beginnings" project for toddlers in the late 80's - and Caroline's on-going ECE colleague.
Larry Tate September 24, 2011 at 08:37 PM
It's really hard to break this to you, but Jesus was Jewish - neither a Black or a White European. Therefore, I think I'll stick with the Jew.
donna brooks September 26, 2011 at 07:00 PM
Larry speaks the truth, Jesus is of the Jewish decent. I for one will never question GOD the Father decision His decision, because beyond is ethnicity, I accept whole heartedly is the he died for the sins of both jew and gentle. That's good enough for all. Donna
Cynthia September 26, 2011 at 11:02 PM
This is very interesting. There are many ways to look at this. From the diversity stand-point, we can reason that African Americans have been in-need of seeing black depictions of their God. From a historical stand-point, Jesus was Hebrew, although most portraits of Him depict European features, along with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, as you grow in your understanding of the Bible and its teachings, you will come to realize that God is universal in His love. We are small-minded and limited in our understanding of "love," always looking for one-upmanship, in one way or another. I think it was a "loving" gesture to depict a black Jesus on the windows of this church. I feel that the Lord understood what this church was saying, "See Him any color you need to see Him, but see Him." And, they were quite brave, as I'm sure the arrows of hate were aimed by fellow Christians of black and white ethnicities. In the end, there is only one color: The color of love. What color would that be for you? Be blessed, black, white, tan, caramel, yellow, and red....and all colors in between, before and after, saints. God loves you because He created your beautiful hue! P.S. Drop by my Etsy shop and browse my Christian paper arts. You will find ONE LORD: http://www.etsy.com/shop/PrayerNotes

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