A group of Buckhead faith leaders, inspired by former Mayor Sam Massell, are asking congregations citywide to join in a common prayer for “Atlanta Together” unity on the May 19-20 weekend.

The dozen houses of worship signed on so far are largely Buckhead-based, but include two historic Civil Rights bastions: The Temple, a Midtown synagogue, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.’s congregation in Sweet Auburn.

Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor and current Buckhead Coalition president. (Special)

To Massell, the effort is another facet of the “Atlanta Together” theme he has pushed since last fall’s close and bruising election between now Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Buckhead’s Mary Norwood, and other municipal elections. Bottoms spoke on the theme in January at the annual meeting of the Buckhead Coalition, the business group that Massell now heads and which endorsed Norwood in the campaign, and went on to speak of “One Atlanta” in her “State of the City” address earlier this month.

“There’s a lot of bitterness that hangs in the air from the elections…The bitterness is very deep this time, for some reason,” said Massell. He said the tension highlights divides that are “racial, religious, geographical…and also financial, rich versus poor.”

“If the faith community can’t do this, no one can,” he said of the unity effort.

Keeva Kase, president and CEO of the Buckhead Christian Ministry, a homelessness prevention organization, agreed to lead the prayer effort. He’s an ordained minister and his organization is a coalition of 30 member churches, so the idea is he could be a neutral party.

“It’s about reminding all Atlantans that we have kinship, not only as children of God, but as children of Atlanta,” said Kase. “We just want to share a common prayer for the city on that week…It’s a very free and simple opportunity. It’s not going to cost anyone anything.”

The effort involves religious leaders delivering the same, 341-word prayer of unity that weekend, and also signing onto a written copy.

“Help us to be an outward-focused people who are concerned for one another and unified in our concern for the well-being of every Atlantan,” reads the prayer in part. “…We ask that you heal deep divides by creating new and lasting bonds of kinship across the city. We ask that you unite our great city in ways previously unimagined that will bring prosperity, wellness and a sense of belonging to every Atlanta resident. We pray for the unity of your children in this great city. We pray for an Atlanta Together, this day and forevermore.”

Keeva Kase, president and CEO of Buckhead Christian Ministry. (File/Evelyn Andrews)

The 28 signatories so far include Kase and leaders from the following religious institutions: Ahavath Achim Synagogue, Christ Covenant Church, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, New Hope A.M.E. Church, Northside United Methodist Church, Northwest Presbyterian Church, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, St. James United Methodist Church, Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church and The Temple.

Rabbi Neil Sandler of Ahavath Achim, one of the signatories, explained his participation in an email sent during a trip to the “Capitol of divisiveness,” Washington, D.C., saying he sees value in a statement of solidarity from Buckhead congregations.

“Our own community may not reflect such strong degrees of political divide, but there is more than a hint of it,” Sandler said. “I resonate to what I think is one of the primary messages of the ‘Atlanta Together’ prayer — a recognition that amidst our differences, there must be a sense of unity that informs how we speak in the political realm about and to each other.”

The May 19-20 weekend was chosen as falling right before yet another election – the May 22 primary – and for coinciding with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and the Christian holiday of Pentecost.

Massell, who is white and Jewish, knows something about political and racial divides; in 1973, he lost a racially charged re-election campaign to Maynard Jackson, the city’s first African American mayor. For the “Atlanta Together” prayer, however, Massell is looking back farther in local political history: the “Minister’s Manifesto” of 1957. In that Civil Rights era effort, 80 white ministers signed a public letter calling for calm and respectful discussion of school desegregation to avoid violence that plagued other Southern cities.

Massell said in recent weeks he met with a small group of local ministers, floating the idea, but letting them write the prayer – though he “added a word or two.”

“I told them, ‘If I could just get a reasonable group of leaders from houses of worship in Buckhead to give a sermon on this subject, I would feel like it was successful,’” he said.

The glass statuette of a handshake given to attendees of the Buckhead Coalition annual meeting in January. (File/Evelyn Andrews)

Now, Massell says, he himself will give the prayer that weekend at Second-Ponce at the invitation of its pastor, Rev. Dock Hollingsworth.

Kase said he signed on to the “Atlanta Together Movement” in the belief that divides can be healed by forgiveness, and to encourage further discussion of the city’s hard realities.

“This is a great city. It’s overcome tremendous adversity in the past” and is flourishing, he said. “But is it flourishing together is a big question.”

Kase said he hopes to get 100 faith leaders to sign on and has reached out to mosques as well. He acknowledges that he is new to the job and the city, lacking the connections to quickly convince congregations farther afield to join.

“I humbly seek their participation. I know this is coming from Buckhead churches,” he said, but noted the participation from Ebenezer Baptist and The Temple. He invited interested faith leaders to contact him at keevakase@bcmatlanta.org.

Kase said he also would be “extremely gratified” to gain the blessing of Bottoms and such former mayoral candidates as Norwood and Ceasar Mitchell to “put aside past differences and say, ‘We’re all in this as a city.’” He and Massell said they’ve reached out to the Bottoms administration, but haven’t heard back. A city spokesperson did not have immediate comment.

Post-mayoral political unity has not gone well so far in Buckhead. Norwood, in her first public post-election comments, claimed the neighborhood doesn’t get its fair share and that south Atlanta contributes little in taxes; Bottoms’ office later blasted those comments as a way to “stoke division when we should focus on unity.”

Massell takes some credit for Bottoms’ unity theme, saying she “incorporated it our request in her speech” to the Buckhead Coalition, where he gave all attendees a glass sculpture of shaking hands. He continued the theme in his “State of the Community” speech to the Buckhead Business Association in February.

Massell said he sent a photo of the program for Bottoms’ “State of the City” speech to Kase as inspiration. Asked about its “One Atlanta” theme, the former mayor answered in a prayerful fashion.

“Amen,” he said.

The following is the full text of the prayer and a related statement and its current list of signatories.

Atlanta Together

A corporate entreaty for citywide kinship from Atlanta houses of worship

May 19-20, 2018

We live in an obviously divided world – politically, socially, geographically, racially and in a number of other ways. This is not what God wants for us. We are to be focused on others, lead with love, and trust in our kinship as children of the Almighty. In light of this, houses of worship across the city offer this prayer to God as we seek the welfare of Atlanta Together:

God, we praise you for your holiness, justice and mercy. We confess that we often look away from your will to our own self interests. We confess our fears, self-centeredness and lack of faith in you and in one another.

We thank you, God, for the incredible blessing of our city, state and nation where we are free to worship and express the convictions of our hearts. We thank you that we live in a place of democracy where all people have a chance to be heard. We pray that you would make us a people of compassion, gentleness, mutual respect and civility. We pray that you would help us to truly believe that all men and women are created equal, and guide us as we strive to be a nation of liberty, equality and justice for all.

Particularly, we thank you for how you have cared for Atlanta. Through war, destruction, division, growth and challenge, you have preserved our city from the ashes and caused it to flourish. We thank you for the whole of our city as we believe that every part of Atlanta makes it a better whole. As people of faith, we have learned to look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others, and we pray that you would help us in this. Help us to be an outward-focused people who are concerned for one another and unified in our concern for the well-being of every Atlantan.

We pray that every member of our congregation would work to be a blessing to Atlanta. We ask that you heal deep divides by creating new and lasting bonds of kinship across the city. We ask that you unite our great city in ways previously unimagined that will bring prosperity, wellness and a sense of belonging to every Atlanta resident. We pray for the unity of your children in this great city. We pray for an Atlanta Together, this day and forevermore. We humbly ask for your care and help in these things. Amen.

Prayerfully together, here undersigned:

Keeva Kase, Buckhead Christian Ministry, Chair Atlanta Together Movement

Rev. Emily Bagwell, St. James United Methodist Church

Rabbi Peter S. Berg, The Temple

Rev. Tim Boggess, Northwest Presbyterian Church

Rev. Leigh Bonner, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta

Rev. Bill Britt, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church

Rev. Jamie Butcher, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta

Rev. Bill Burch, Northside United Methodist Church

Rev. Jason Dees, Christ Covenant Church

Rev. Elizabeth Edwards, St. James United Methodist Church

Cantor Deborah Hartman, The Temple

Rev. Richard Hill, Covenant Presbyterian Church

Rev. Dock Hollingsworth, Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church

Rev. Kevin Knabb, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta

Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus, The Temple

Rev. Connie Lee, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta

Rabbi Lydia Medwin, The Temple

Rabbi Steven Rau, The Temple

Rev. David Richards, New Hope A.M.E. Church

Rabbit Laurence Rosenthal, Ahavath Achim Synagogue

Rabbi Neil Sandler, Ahavath Achim Synagogue

Rev. Ann Henley Saunders, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta

Rev. John Simmons, St. James United Methodist Church

Rabbi David Spinrad, The Temple

Rabbi Alvin M. Sugarman, The Temple

Rev. Tony Sundermeier, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta

Rev. Katie Sundermeier, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta

Rev. Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer Baptist Church

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.