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50 Years of Service
St. Augustine's celebrates diversity, anniversary

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

When Veronica Buntin first walked into the Episcopal church in Morrow, through the wooden double doors beneath the red cross, she noticed something: This was a white church.

She and her husband were the only African Americans at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church that Sunday. After a few moments, though, it didn't seem to matter.

"The way the people greeted us when we walked in the door, we felt welcome," said Buntin, remembering the experience 13 years later. "Once we walked in -- even though I was the only black person, with my husband -- we just felt right. We just felt at home."

Barry Griffin became the parish's priest at the church at about that same time, and he immediately noticed the lack of diversity at St. Augustine's. The church, when Griffin became rector, was a white, blue collar church, and the people in it fit that profile.

"I don't think it was a racist thing," he said Thursday, sitting in his office amid the clutter of religious books, icons, and paperwork. "That's just the way it was. It was a white church."

That's the way it was, but it's not the way it would stay.

This Sunday, celebrating the 50th anniversary of St. Augustine's Episcopal Church, Griffin said the congregation has gone past accepting diversity, and now celebrates it.

"Now, we have the whole gambit," Griffin said. "I think the most remarkable thing about this parish is it's diversity."

Buntin, now the senior warden, a head administrative official, said the church worked hard and prayed hard to reach out to the community and to achieve a diversity that reflected the changing face of Morrow and Clayton County.

"All are welcome," she said, "regardless of sexual orientation or race. It's irrelevant to us."

The congregation, averaging about 100 people per Sunday, is about 60 percent white and 40 percent minority. Economically, the congregation ranges from poor and fixed income individuals, to those "who have some very nice salaries," Griffin said. The church is accepting and welcoming to gay and lesbian people, and the sign out in front of the 1221 Morrow Road says, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You."

Buntin describes St. Augustine's as "a little church with a big heart."

Both the priest, and the senior warden, say that diversity marks the church's place in the community and is the challenge most recently overcome, in the St. Augustine's 50-year history.

When the church began in 1958, it was just a small congregation meeting in the home of Guy Chunn, and then in the home of Ida Baumgartner, in Forest Park. The first few decades were a struggle, Griffin said, and the church did not get parish status, meaning financial independence, until 1977.

This Sunday, at 11 a.m., the church will celebrate it's 50th anniversary, dating from that first meeting in 1958.

Griffin said in addition to the church's warmness and diversity, he wants St. Augustine's to be defined by its commitment to service.

"I'm encouraging people to step forward," he said, "and take ownership, leadership, and I want church to be about more than just Sunday morning."

Asked what church is about, Griffin pulled out a collection of brightly-colored flyers, advertising the church's Community Breakfast, a free meal held on the second Saturday of each month, and flyers advertising 13 ways to serve in the church, eight regularly scheduled group meetings, including a Bible study, a book club and a restaurant group, and 13 parachurch ministries, including a free medical clinic, a homeless shelter and a battered women's shelter.

Buntin said the church's welcome spirit also is a spirit of service. Recently, a woman came to church for the first time one Sunday, and was working in the kitchen during coffee hour the next Sunday.

Remembering a hymn about the gathering of the saints, and a cloud of witnesses, Buntin said "this is who we are and what St. Augustine's is all about."

In June, during Griffin's three-month sabbatical, the church will begin the process of "visioning," talking about where they would like to see the church go in the next 50 years.

"As people share, the vision takes shape," Griffin said. "But what's the old saying? 'How do you make God laugh? You tell him your plans.' So you do what you can, and you put it in God's hands."