Riverdale First Baptist changes with times

By Greg Gelpi

Originally nestled in a rural setting with baptisms in a nearby farmer's pond, Riverdale First Baptist Church is a church in transition.

William Spratlin Rivers, one of the church's charter members and the man Riverdale is named after, couldn't have imagined where the church would be today, 110 years later, Pastor Jeffrey C. Lowe said.

The church has transitioned from its rural to its urban surroundings and is now transitioning with the diversified community.

Welcoming the changes of its community, the church has opened its doors to the influx of immigrants that has given Riverdale its international flare.

A native of Cameroon, an African country about the size of California, Constance Takang, 31, and her husband Samuel joined the church after moving from Boston.

Usually, moving means visiting many churches, but the Takangs just needed one visit to one church to feel at home at Riverdale First Baptist. The fellowship and friendliness made them feel welcome, she said.

"If you don't show up, they give you a call to see how you are doing," Constance Takang said. "I'm impressed that we were welcomed. We weren't left out in any way."

Although its congregation doesn't mirror the demographics of the community, families from the Cameroon, Nigeria and Sierra Leone have joined the church in recent years, as the church changes with the community.

"Those families have made a wonderful contribution to this church," Lowe said. "While we no longer reflect the demographics of the community, we have made bridges. That's the future of the church. That's what makes this church interesting. When I was growing up in Clayton County years ago, that wasn't the case."

Lowe called the church a "kaleidoscope." With each change, the look and demographics of the congregation adapts.

He likened the transition the church is undergoing to the transition it underwent following World War II. Until then, most of the area in and around Riverdale was farmland. When the airport expanded and the area became more urban, so did the church. The church didn't add indoor plumbing until 1954.

"This is one of the churches that the made the transition," Lowe said. "Now the question is can we change to meet the needs of an international community."

Diversity has spread beyond color lines of races and moved into diversity of cultures and nationalities, he said.

Laughing, he said the church didn't place an advertisement in the newspaper to attract a diverse congregation. They just came.

"The diversity of Clayton County is amazing," church member Art Love, 81, said. "The diversity of the county is reflected in our membership. The diversity has enhanced the church I would say. It's brought about greater understanding."

Margaret Spears, 86, has been a member of the church since 1971.

"I just got a warm welcome," Spears said, echoes the sentiments of Constance Takang.

Riverdale First Baptist's members are aging, he said. In its "heyday," the church had about 500 members, but has about 150 now.

Through all of the changes, though, the basic Baptist principles have remained the same, Lowe said.

Riverdale First Baptist Church was founded Nov. 11, 1894, and in 1902 purchased the land where the church still sits.

Up until 1948, the church had monthly preaching, as opposed to weekly preaching, a sign of how the church grew, Lowe said.