You learn things reading church newsletters. Take, for example, this very interesting tidbit about First Congregational UCC, a historic downtown Atlanta church, celebrating its 150th anniversary.
Big deal, you say. Churches mark anniversaries all the time. Well, in this case, it is a big deal. First is a truly historic place. It was founded in 1867 by Congregationalist missionaries from the north who risked life and limb to educate freed slaves. Booker T. Washington spoke at the dedication of their present sanctuary, and Teddy Roosevelt visited a couple of years later. It was the home church of Atlanta’s first black millionaire, and it has a long history of serving the local black community and helping to lead the cause of civil rights. Andrew Young was based at First throughout the 1960s and 70s. Jeremiah Wright gave a revival there a decade before before he became that Jeremiah Wright.
But here’s the truly very interesting part of the story: Kamala Harris, the Democratic Senator from California, will be speaking at the celebration. Says Dwight D. Andrews, the senior pastor:
I was watching the Senate hearing involving the questioning of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and I was so taken by Sen. Harris’ clarity of questions and statements, I said, “Who is this woman?”; As I looked into more of her background, I thought she would be a great choice because she is one of our leaders on the national scene and I think she is a very committed social justice soldier. Social justice is a part of what this church is about.
Now, understand, First is the kind of place Atlanta’s civic and religious leaders love to celebrate. There will be any number of each at this service. Andrew Young almost certainly will be there, as will UCC President and General Minister John Dorhauer. I would give even money that Cynthia Hale, who delivered the invocation at last year’s Democratic convention, will too. Same for John Lewis, whose congressional district includes downtown Atlanta. Believe me: every black mover and shaker in Atlanta is either going to be at this event or receiving a report on how it went—including how its speakers performed.
On one level, I absolutely believe Rev. Andrews: he noticed Sen. Harris, and thought she would be a good match for the celebration. But this absolutely will also be a test run for any further political ambition Harris might have. It’s a high profile gig in a high profile city (especially for African Americans) in a highly charged moment. They are going to be watching her very closely to gauge her potential. Black voters, as the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has observed, are the ultimate political pragmatists. They initially favored Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries until he demonstrated he could win it all. They’re going to be looking to see if the same might be true of the junior senator from California.
To be clear, even though Harris is often touted as a rival to Bernie Sanders, this is not to suggest that she is launching a 2020 bid from the pulpit at First. Maybe she is, maybe she’s not. If she gives an anodyne speech about the history of the black church and its involvement in the struggle for black liberation, that’s one thing. But if she’s introduced by somebody like Andy Young or John Lewis, particularly if they anoint her the “next generation” of leadership, and she proceeds to rip Donald Trump a new one, watch out. All bets are off. You heard it here first, via a small notice in a church newsletter.
*Full disclosure: I attended First Congregational while in seminary in the 1990s. It was and remains one of my favorite churches.