They stood on the steps of the boarded-up church, linked hands and asked out loud for God to protect the sanctuary behind them.
With their eyes squinted shut, they prayed that Trinity CME Church’s storied past would be enough to save the vacant building from an uncertain future.
“Losing this church building would be like ripping the heart out of somebody,” said CME Presiding Elder Jetson Maness. “This building is where Georgia CME got its roots. We need to keep it here and thriving.”
More than 50 people attending the Sixth District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church’s annual conference gathered at Trinity’s original site on Taylor and Eighth streets Monday to pray that it be saved from possible demolition.
The building, erected in the 1890s, has sat vacant since Atlanta Gas Light began a multi-million dollar decontamination project on the church grounds and surrounding area in 2003.
Since then, the building has deteriorated with severe water damage and structural issues. Atlanta Gas Light is expected to submit a cleanup plan to Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division in August to address lingering coal-tar contamination, but what that means for the church building is unclear.
With lingering environmental contamination, it’s not guaranteed that any rehabilitation work could be conducted on the church during the cleanup process, or at all.
Earlier this month, Atlanta Gas Light said in a statement to The Augusta Chronicle that the cleanup process will include solidification of residual materials underneath the site, which “may require demolition” of Trinity.
“I hope and pray that this monument signifying history will live on past my tenure and our grandchildren’s tenure,” CME Bishop Kenneth Carter said to the crowd. “That Trinity, Mother Trinity, will be here to tell her history.”
Trinity was formed in 1840 by about 125 slaves who attended St. John Methodist Church with their white owners. A small barn-like structure, which still stands today covered in weeds, was built in 1843 before the current structure was erected in the 1890s.
The group also put their resources together to purchase the freedom of Athens, Ga., slave preacher, the Rev. James Harris, so he could come to the Trinity congregation in 1853 to serve as pastor.
In 1985, Atlanta Gas Light began soil and groundwater investigations at the former manufactured gas plant across the street from Trinity that operated from 1852 to 1955.
Soil and water tests confirmed contamination existed beyond the plant’s property lines – a result of coal tar disposed at the site and left behind after it closed.
In 1996, Atlanta Gas Light reached a settlement with Trinity and nearby residents, compensating hundreds of property owners in nine square blocks of the former plant site affected by the toxic coal-tar contamination.
Trinity received $3 million for damages and relocation costs, and the congregation moved to a new church on Glenn Hills Drive in 1998.
The building is currently being leased at no cost by Miracle Making Ministries, but the organization is unable to rehabilitate or use the building until the contamination clean-up plan is resolved.
The Rev. Herman “Skip” Mason, Trinity’s current pastor, said he’d like to see the building turn into a cultural center, as is being proposed by Miracle Making Ministries president Robert Williams.
However, Mason said he is aware Atlanta Gas Light could propose the building be demolished, so he said public outcry is important.
“It would be a loss for our church, that we would have no physical, tangible history anymore,” Mason said.
On Monday, the 50 CME conference members who came to the church to pray admired the building’s worn exterior and reflected in front of the original wooden hut behind the church.
Dark clouds formed over their heads and a few raindrops fell before they began to pray.
When he felt the rain, Mason looked up and smiled.
“I’m not one bit surprised or shocked that the rain drops fell as we started to pray and then stopped,” Mason said later. “It’s a sign from above. It’s a good sign.”