Church of Month: St. Paul's Episcopal Church, One of Fastest-Growing in Nation
St. Paul's is one of the fastest growing church in the Episcopal Diocese of Greater Atlanta. Many say it's because of the uplifting music and inspiring pastor.
Jacqueline Forde-Wright was raised in a quiet, subdued Anglican church in Barbados. She wasn’t quite prepared for the clapping, standing and shouting at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
She didn’t expect to be moved to tears by the sermon that seemed to be directed at her.
And she didn’t realize that when she walked into the church five years ago it would become her second home.
“It happens a lot in our church. The sermon and the choir often move you to tears,” Forde-Wright said. “You just don’t go to church at St. Paul’s. It is church. It’s all around you.”
The church, parceled beyond a slight bend on Peyton Road, is one of the fastest growing church in the Atlanta diocese, which include 96 churches in north and middle Georgia.
And, according to local Episcopalians, it’s one of the largest African-American parishes in the Episcopal Church nationwide.
“It really stands out as a church because of its music, the preaching and the outreach,” said Nan Ross, spokeswoman for The Episcopal Diocese of Greater Atlanta. “There is just a lot of positive energy in that place and it’s attracted a lot of people.”
And it appears to be attracting more people like Forde-Wright; people of other cultures, nationalites and even religions. At least 10 to 15 percent of the parish’s population is from the Caribbean Islands with strong Anglican traditions such as Barbados, Jamaica and Antigua. The church also has a handful of Africans from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Liberia and Latinos from Mexico and Puerto Rico.
“That’s unusual,” Senior Warden Reuben McDaniel said. “We have somehow reached out to our Caribbean brothers and sisters to have that much Caribbean diversity in (our) church.”
As a result, each year for the past six years the church has hosted its Annual Caribbean Festival with music from steel drums and dishes from various islands. This year, the weekend-long celebration included the Mocko Jumbies – stilt dancers who performed as about 20 children paraded the flags from different islands.
Still, the majority of the Episcopalian churches are predominantly white and so are most of the Episcopal churches in Georgia. There are about 2.4 million Episcopalians in America with the largest diocese in Haiti.
St. Paul’s, which is 134 years old, is the oldest predominantly-black Episcopal church in Atlanta. It is also the largest with about 950 members.
Last year, the church had to expand its 79-space parking lot to 280 to accommodate the increasing number of parishioners attending Sunday services.
Many say the church is growing because of the choirs, which include: a 70-member traditional choir, a men's choir, a women's choir and, Voices of Praise, a contemporary jazz and gospel choir with a band. The choirs are lead by Trey Clegg, who is also Director of Music for the Mid-Atlanta Convocation in the Diocese of Atlanta.
Others are drawn by the warmth and the fellowship that transforms the church into a second home.
And all seemed to agree, the church’s pastor is at the epicenter of the church’s growth. The church, which once had a total attendance of about 150 on Sundays, sprung to more than 500 at the 11:15 service in just a few years. Some, like Forde-Wright, travel 45 minutes to an hour for service.
“He speaks to you,” Forde-Wright said. “Every time he gives a sermon, it feels like he is speaking directly to you, for you and about you. You can ask any member of the church.”
Even non-members agree.
“It’s a very spirited experience. I don’t know how to put it in words,” said Ross, a member of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. “That’s a large size church for us. It’s a thriving, very active congregation. Rob Wright, the rector there, has been very instrumental. It has grown significantly under his clergy.
“He’s very practical, down to earth and understands what people want.”
The people want to be fed, Father Rob Wright said.
“People are hungry for a couple of things. They are hungry for an encouraging word. They are hungry for music that stirs the soul. They are hungry for connection with other people. And when you get these things going, churches tend to grow.”
Father Wright, an unassuming man who grew up in the projects of Pittsburgh, has been the church’s pastor for almost nine years.
The former Navy man who helped memorialize many of the 3,000 9-11 victims in New York, was born in a Catholic orphanage.
His mother raised him in the Catholic Church but the family drifted from the church after his father died.
After high school, he became a diver in the Navy’s Search and Rescue team (Navy SEALs) before leaving to attend Howard University.
Soon, he began searching for a church home.
“I visited a number of churches, but I did not feel welcome or that it was warm,” Father Wright said.
Then a friend invited him to St. George’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
“The minister was down to earth, a person who was accessible and normal,” Pastor Wright said. “Sometimes ministers stand up and sound like they are trying to be Shakespeare. He was genuine.”
And so he kept attending the church. When the pastor asked him if he ever thought of becoming a pastor, he balked at the idea.
“I thought ministers had to be this perfect person,” Father Wright, 47, said.
But the husband and father of five has since learned that one of the minister’s greatest gift is to inspire hope.
He was serving as an assistant pastor at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine when hundreds of mourners of 9-11 victims poured into the church.
“One of the things I think about the most is making sure the young people get hope from us,” Pastor Wright said. “They have a rough time ahead of them.
“I often think about how to give people encouragement to live boldly, to be overcomers.”
Services: Sundays: 9 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.; Wednesdays: 6 p.m.
Global Outreach—includes an outreach to an Episcopal church parish and school in Bois Blanc, Haiti, established in 2002: Several times a year, the church sends an opthamologoist to Haiti as well as uniforms, books and supplies to some 250 schoolchildren.
Peyton Forrest Elementary Mentoring
Harambee Girls Rights of Passage Program
Too Good To Be True Thrift shop
Food Pantry/Outreach House
Adopt-A-Family: Each Christmas members of the church adopts a family in need.
Special Belief: "One thing the church holds central is communion. We have it every Sunday," Father Wright said.