HERE AT STONE MOUNTAIN, it’s difficult to convey the magnitude of the sculpture to one who hasn’t seen it in person.
The entire carved surface measures three acres—larger than a football field or Mount Rushmore. The three Confederate figures carved on horseback reach 90 feet high and recess 12 feet into the mountain.
Workers used dynamite to blast the surface, and the carving was so immense, sculptors could duck inside the carved mouth of one of the horses to escape rain showers.
The mountain’s history is far less impressive.
In 1915, a former Methodist preacher led a small group of men to the top of Stone Mountain, and at the summit they set a cross ablaze. After decades of dormancy, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was reborn. By the mid-1920s, the white supremacy group had drawn some 5 million supporters nationwide and held initiation for hundreds of hooded Klansmen at the foot of Stone Mountain.
A local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy helped spearhead efforts to carve a Confederate memorial into Stone Mountain, and after decades of delays and disputes, the carving was completed in 1972. Forty-five years later, a Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, says the state should obliterate the sculpture in the wake of Charlottesville violence.
It’s an unlikely scenario, and it’s unclear how much Georgia citizens would push to eradicate a carving of this magnitude—a job far harder than pulling down a statue or a flag.
Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta and an African-American civil rights leader who was with Martin Luther King Jr. when he was assassinated, has challenged the idea of battling to take down Confederate monuments. “I think it’s too costly to re-fight the Civil War,” he said at an Atlanta press conference in August. “We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together.”
When asked about Black Lives Matter activists who might disagree with him, Young told NPR, “I’m saying, these are kids who grew up free, and they don’t know what still enslaves them—and it’s not those monuments.”
Some do disagree with Young, but on a recent Sunday morning, joggers and walkers in Stone Mountain Park included whites, blacks, and Asians. Meanwhile, a black employee and a white employee headed into the park gates together at the foot of the mountain that once hosted KKK rallies.
‘These are kids who grew up free, and they don’t know what still enslaves them—and it’s not those monuments.’ —Andrew Young
A few miles away, churchgoers gathered for worship at the Clarkston International Bible Church (CIBC). Every weekend, worshippers from some 12 to 15 different nationalities pour into the campus for worship services.
Clarkston—known as the Ellis Island of the South—is a hub for refugees from around the world, and CIBC has embraced an opportunity to reach out to Christians and others fleeing persecution in their home countries.
At a 10:45 a.m. worship service, Christians from Africa, Asia, and the United States sit together in wooden pews and listen to a call to worship. Twenty-year-old Sam Abebe, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia in the 1980s, greets the diverse gathering: “It’s really a joy to see people from so many places in the same building worshipping the same God.”
It wasn’t always this way.
William S. Perrin, 85, is a longtime elder in the Southern Baptist congregation founded in the 1800s. Perrin grew up in Clarkston and has attended CIBC his entire life, except for time away as an officer in the U.S. army.
He remembers most of Clarkston—and his church—as completely white during his childhood. His only interaction with black children came in the summers when he joined with young black boys who lived across a creek near his aunt’s property. Together, the children would dam the creek in the summer and build a swimming hole: “We didn’t really know we were white and black.”
In the army, he interacted with black adults on a regular basis for the first time and developed good relationships and respect. “Human beings are human beings,” he says. “It don’t make no difference what their color is.”
Some in the church didn’t always agree. By the early 1990s, as refugees poured into Clarkston, Ga., and the demographics of the town changed, Perrin says, some church members left. As the church decided to share space with refugees and later merge with a Filipino congregation meeting on the property, others left because they didn’t want to mix with minorities.
The church lost hundreds of people from its peak membership. “The Lord pruned this church like He was pruning an olive tree,” says Perrin. “And He pruned the prejudice out, and it left us with about 20 families.”
These days, hundreds worship at CIBC each weekend, including some groups holding their own worship services in classrooms on the property. The North American Mission Board recently partnered with the church to make it a hub for outreach and training for other congregations in the area.
Pastor Trent DeLoach hopes the church can be a monument to the gospel, particularly in divisive moments: “Our response is to keep doing what we’re doing. Every day we bring together a multiethnic tapestry of people that love each other and that worship side by side. I think it’s a powerful message.”
After morning worship, congregants gather in the nearby gym for a weekly lunch, and Sam Abebe gets ready for an afternoon youth Bible study. Abebe grew up in Clarkston too, and he came on staff last year as the church’s recreation coordinator. Each Sunday, he meets with young people from different cultures to talk about the Bible.
Sometimes those cultures clash, but Abebe says reconciliation flows from allowing different people slowly to identify with each other and become a family: “Then they kind of work it out in their own hearts.”
For Abebe, the events in Charlottesville are grievous, but he says it’s important to speak out against racism without becoming consumed by it: “Our identity is in Christ.”
That’s a tough line to walk, but Abebe commends something in short supply: humility. “We have to remember we were once walking in the powers of darkness,” he says of Christians. “And the people that are practicing racism are walking in the powers of darkness. That was us, even if it didn’t manifest itself as racism.” Abebe prays for the “love that points out people’s wrongs in a loving way.”