In 1923, a group from the Jackson Hill Baptist off Ponce de Leon Avenue decided to form a new church: Virginia Highland Baptist Church, first in a storefront on Monroe Drive and then a small building at the corner of Ponce Place and Virginia Avenue.
The church grew as families moved to Atlanta, many who came to work for the Atlanta Trolley Company service center just one block away. In the 1940s, Pastor Omar Jones saw the need for a new building. Thanks to a large donation from a church member and the gifts of many others, our beautiful sanctuary was dedicated in 1949. The church was cited in national magazines as “green” for featuring “a thermostat in every classroom.”
During the 1950s and the 1960s every seat was filled. Rev. Jones hired Marie Newton as Director of Music. She created a large, graded choir program, which became the model for churches throughout the south.
In the 1960s the Georgia Department of Transportation announced a new Interstate to connect I-20 to I-85 to be known as Freedom Parkway. This new road would cut through Virginia Highland. Church members began to sell their homes. Others were taken by eminent domain. A movement was led by the Atlanta Journal’s John Howell to stop construction.
In the 1970s Governor Jimmy Carter put an end to the project, but not before over 500 houses had been demolished. If you visit John Howell Park, one block down the street, you will find bricks with the names and addresses of church members who could no longer live in the neighborhood. The Freedom Parkway project devastated the church. The congregation became a shell of its former self.
In 1990, Rev. Tim Shirley, a new young pastor, stood on the steps of the church preparing to preach to a small group of senior citizens. He saw people walking, running and enjoying a Sunday stroll including men holding hands. He believed people in the neighborhood would be more interested in a church with a more liturgical form of worship. He also believed the church should welcome all of its neighbors. Thus was born the new motto: “An inclusive Community of Faith where everyone is welcome.”
Indeed gay folk did find this church. By 1995, the church had ordained a gay man as a church deacon, a very progressive milestone for any church. We also ordained women to ministry and leadership. For that, the congregation had to part with the Southern Baptist denomination. Slowly, the church again began to grow again as a sanctuary for those disenfranchised or hurt by the church of their youth.
In 1999, with much media fanfare, Virginia Highland was kicked out of the Georgia Baptist Convention in an overwhelming vote for “harboring homosexuals.”
The media attention attracted people from all over the metro area seeking a progressive and welcoming faith community. The church performed many same sex marriages and ordained gay women and men to ministry.
Even when the church did not have a full time Pastor, we continue to have an impact on the community. In 2009, after Atlanta police swat team raided the Eagle Bar in Ponce de Leon. Virginia Highland Church intervened by hosting a meeting of reconciliation between the Atlanta police and the gay community. This meeting resulted in policy changes by the Atlanta police. Our interim Pastor Chris Glaser was honored as Grand Marshall of the Atlanta Pride Parade that year.
In 2010, Rev. Michael Piazza was hired as a part-time co-pastor along with Rev. Cameron Trimble with the task of revitalizing the church. Under their leadership, membership and attendance doubled.
Rev. Matt Laney began his ministry in 2018. His love for the gospel and for justice has attracted many members, ministries and a renewed sense of hope in a challenging political moment.
The church is active in the struggle to protect and expand voting rights including being a plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the Georgia Secretary of State’s office and the Georgia Board of Elections for widespread voter suppression and disenfranchisement.
Thanks to generations of dedicated, faithful people, Virginia-Highland Church will soon celebrate its first 100 years of ministry together. We know God is still speaking and God is not finished with us yet!