Photos by Jeylin White
The Sounds of Essence, a Rhythm and Blues cover band based in Atlanta, performed at the Sacred Praise United Methodist Church Motors and Music Festival.
It’s not often you see Christians boogying down to Rhythm and Blues music on church grounds. But members at Sacred Praise United Methodist Church in Lovejoy like doing things the unconventional way.
“We are a very casual and laid-back church,” said Rev. William Neal III. “We want to embrace the community and we want people to see Christians having fun.”
On a sunny, breezy Saturday, members and nonmembers came out to enjoy Sacred Praise’s first community event, “Motors and Music Festival.”
A dozen or so residents paid the $10 registration fee that day to show off their cars and motorcycles. Others got a taste of Chick-Fil-A, and bobbed their heads, clapped their hands to the live music being performed by Sounds of Essence, a Lithonia cover band.
“People are enthusiastic about their cars and music and we are a church who likes to go outside the walls and get to know the people,” said Lillie Ann Noel, a church member and one of the event’s organizers.
The band got the crowd — young and old — out of their seats to some old-school hits such as A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.”
Attendees were fascinated by the classic cars and motorcycles. Two of the classic cars belonged to Neal and Lovejoy Mayor Bobby Cartwright, who came out to support his friend and local community.
Neal sported his 1989 cherry red Corvette and Cartwright showed off his 1966 Black turbo Jet Chevelle.
“This is my toy, it keeps me sane,” Neal said about his car. “I only ride her a couple of months and when I want to take my wife on a date or out to eat.”
“I feel like a diva when I’m in that car,” said Denise, his wife of 31 years. “I make sure I dress up when I’m rolling in that car.”
Denise said she met the love of her life in Kalamazoo, Mich., while he was on duty in the U.S. Army. She said when she first saw him it was love at first sight.
“I knew he was a man I needed to meet,” said Denise.
Neal, a tall and refined, retired ROTC officer from the Army, has led his congregation for two years.
Neal said he felt the call of God on his life to preach in 2000, while attending Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Fairburn.
“I have always been a spiritual person, being brought up and raised in the church,” he said. “I would get people all the time asking me for spiritual counseling and prayer. ... I knew then preaching is what God was calling me to do.”
“I was not surprised that God wanted him to lead his own congregation,” said Denise. “It’s in him and I would never stand in God’s way.”
Though Neal has been preaching since 2000, he didn’t began his own church until 2010, in Lovejoy.
Before moving into their current building, located at 2601 Steele Road — with only four members to start off with — they would hold Sunday morning worship service at the local community center in Lovejoy.
Two years later, it has grown to 105 members.
“God has been faithful to us because we have been faithful to Him,” said Neal.
“It’s an honor to be his friend and to support this event,” said Cartwright. “He and his wife do so much in the community. Wherever I am, I look up and they’re there, too.”
Neal said the objective behind Saturday’s event was to connect with the people and let them know their church is an open door to come as you are.
“Being too institutionalized can keep some people from coming to church and most don’t fit into those traditions,” said Neal, who confesses to preaching in his blue jeans on some Sundays. “I want people to see us having fun and want to come out and worship with us.”