A few months after being named minister at Trinity Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in the summer of 1994, the Rev. J. Ronzell Maness received a phone call from Atlanta Gas Light Co. requesting permission to drill on the church's property at Eighth and Taylor streets.
"I wondered why," he said. "I never gave them permission until I discovered they wanted to test for soil samples," said the former architectural engineering major, who has degrees from Paine College and Interdenominational Theology Center in Atlanta.
By December 1996, Atlanta Gas Light was agreeing to compensate the church and nearby property owners in a multimillion-dollar settlement behind a class-action lawsuit alleging the properties were contaminated from the company's manufacture of gas at its Eighth Street and Walton Way plant, which closed in the 1950s.
In July 2001, the church moved to a new $3.4 million facility on Glenn Hills Drive and is led by the Rev. Donald R. Jordan.
Whenever he's credited as spearheading a David vs. Goliath victory for his congregation against the company, the Rev. Maness, one of 10 children of a North Carolina sharecropper, stays humble.
"It was a calling from God, and I never questioned whether I should help. I didn't have any fear, reservations, nor did I come to Trinity knowing about the problem. It unexpectedly fell in my lap," said the Rev. Maness, now the presiding elder of the Augusta-Thomson District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
In naming those who have influenced him, the Rev. Maness said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a role model because he transcended spiritual boundaries to create social change.
But he calls his father, the late Lannie D. Maness, his "greatest influence."
After working tobacco fields and livestock, the Rev. Maness' father would battle for equality as president of the Robbins, N.C., branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Rev. Maness said.
"People listened to him, and he lived a Christian life," the 51-year-old minister said.
At his North Moore High School alma mater in Robbins, the Rev. Maness recalls seeing a young "Johnny" Edwards try to make the football team.
Thirty years later, Mr. Edwards, now a U.S. senator, made his run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
The Rev. Maness and his wife, Catherine, married in 1983 and live in Evans. They have a son, 16-year-old Paul Ronzell, and a daughter, 14-year-old Amelia.
"Family is important for many reasons," the Rev. Maness said. "My parents gave us strong values, and I have a deep love for my children and for others."
The Rev. J. Ronzell Maness
Occupation: Presiding elder, Augusta-Thomson District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Accomplishment: Led successful class-action suit against Atlanta Gas Light Co.
Family: Wife Catherine; children Paul and Amelia
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