Reverend Howard R. Beckham made his way to the microphone that was stationed in the center of the pulpit. The senior pastor at New Jerusalem Baptist Church in southwest Atlanta, he had done so many times before during his 29 years as the leader of the small congregation, but this particular Sunday service was different. It was a special day. New Jerusalem turned 75 years old Sunday, Nov. 19 and Beckham took a moment to acknowledge the many people and moments that had come before and after him that made this silver anniversary possible.
On Sunday, with the pews full of church members, their families and friends, a 75th church anniversary and dedication service took place. New Jerusalem began with a small group of believers, said Beckham, who added, “This shows the faithfulness of God for sustaining this congregation through hindsight, turmoil and difficulties,” Beckham said. “It also means we must be doing something right.”
The people who gathered for the 75th anniversary sat in a new church home. A massive structure, New Jerusalem is now located at the corner of Dill and Athens avenues. The site of the former God’s Word & Christ Ministries, it is now home to a church that was started on Edgewood Avenue in the early 1950’s before the original congregation moved to its longtime home on a hill at 383 Paines Avenue in 1956. During that time there were two fires, members born, raised and died, and changes of leadership of the church. The entire time New Jerusalem Baptist Church survived and thrived. The property on Paines Avenue, which is Downtown, quickly became valuable in the midst of Atlanta’s ongoing gentrification period.
After many attempts to build on that site at Paines Avenue or to purchase a church in another location, Beckham decided to present the idea of selling the property in order to buy another larger property elsewhere. A church board agreed to inquire about the value of the property in early 2022. The property, which was just under an acre, according to Fulton County property records, was sold in October 2002. The congregation and church leadership would secure the building and adjoining property on Paines Avenue in April 2023.
“In July we began having service here and now it has become the new church home for New Jerusalem Baptist Church,” said Beckham, who added that there are plans to repave the adjacent parking lot. There has already been a new staircase built there.
Some of the people in attendance, like choir member Lessie Jones, Reverend Samuel Bowles, and Kattie Winfrey, have been with the church for decades. In the case of Jones and Bowles, each has been attending service at the church’s three addresses for 60 and 63 years, respectfully.
Jones, who had more than two dozen family members in attendance Sunday, was raised at New Jerusalem Baptist Church, her late mother Jerlean Jones, one of the original members whose names are forever linked within the new church by way of gold labels on the side of the pews.
There is also a collection of stained glass windows that have recently been installed with the names of elder members of the church that have since passed.
Beckham said the memories of those founding mothers and fathers of the church were key to getting to this point. A moment of memorial took place where a candle was lit in their honor.
“As I look back on the years, God, I can testify to the great things you have done for me,” Jones said during the reflection period of the program. “I kneel before you today and thank you for providing me with a church home.”
Bowles and Winfrey also spoke of their time with the church and how it has become both a home and family for them. Winfrey, an elderly woman, joked that she wasn’t as old as Jones, but also acknowledged that she had been at the church “since the beginning.”
“Yes we did have Covid, yes we did have everything, but I want y’all to put in your mind that we need the Lord,” Bowles, who sang the Baptist classic, “I Won’t Complain,’ said.
Guest soloist, Minister Mae Smith, was asked to sing a solo during the celebration. With all of the blessings surrounding New Jerusalem and its new church home, Smith, who was a guest speaker along with Reverend Melvin Allen Tukes, decided to sing, “He Made A Way.” When she was done the congregation clapped in unison.
Indeed, God did make a way for New Jerusalem Baptist Church, said Beckham who greeted guests and church members following the service. He told The Atlanta Voice that the church will continue to make a way for others. “We are a church that reaches out past our walls,” he said.