The smell of sausage biscuits and hash browns ruminated through the Flat Rock African Methodist Episcopal Church’s newly constructed Family Life Center as Reverend Edward Johnson Jr. began to welcome members and guests of its men’s ministry.
It’s standard procedure for the men’s ministry as they meet every first Saturday at 9:00 a.m. for fellowship. The meetings usually consist of discussions of faith, mentorship, and community service.
This meeting was no different as Johnson began to outline the latest devotional reading of “Kingdom Man” by Tony Evans. He later dove into an educational discussion on spiritual gifts before asking members to fill out an online questionnaire to determine their specific gifts as listed in the Bible.
Johnson, Flat Rock’s pastor since 2003, said the exercise was a part of his overarching theme to get the congregation to go from membership to discipleship. The men’s ministry is a part of many ministries that focus on continuing Flat Rock’s foundation of education, family, and worship.
Flat Rock has over a dozen ministries that have been instituted to serve members and the community. Several ministries aid a specific purpose, such as the prison ministry and the couple’s ministry. Each one is open to the public and offers enrichment opportunities to those interested.
“I knew that there was a mission that God had placed on me to move the church forward,” Johnson said. “I thought that it was important that the church recognize that we just couldn’t be worshipping on Sunday and closing the doors the rest of the week.”
Since being originated in 1854 on Spears Plantation in Fayetteville, Flat Rock has been a beacon for the community. It is the oldest black congregation in the county and is one of three black churches that have been honored with an historical marker.
However, everything at Flat Rock hasn’t always been positive. Like any establishment, Flat Rock has faced its share of issues that included financial trouble, racial discrimination, and social tribulations.
Flat Rock survived through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, both World Wars, and the Civil Rights movement. The church has also endured many name iterations—going from Rocky Mountain AME Church to Scuttlefield Church to its current namesake.
Each change brought about its own set of challenges. Flat Rock endured a lightning fire that destroyed the original building in 1917. It was later rebuilt and remodeled on the same land property.
The church also has dealt with racial discrimination as someone shot at the historical marker and church doors nearly 10 years ago. The church believes that it was meant to create fear in the congregation in response to the election of former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Yet, according to church historian Gail Goode, many members weren’t intimidated. They continued to grow stronger with each incident as it took them deeper in their faith.
“It showed that the congregation was committed to their faith because, whenever something happened, they rebuilt the church,” Goode said. “That to me just shows how strong the faith is in the church.”
It is that strong faith that built the foundation of Flat Rock. Through the unwavering support of the congregation, Flat Rock has served multiple purposes throughout the years. One of its most important functions was as a school for black children.
Many members believed that faith and education were the tools to continuing the future of the church. As a result, over 100 black students attended the church for school as it was one of the only places they could get an education during segregation. The school taught math and English for the children and helped set them up for success in the world.
“The foundation at Flat Rock made sure the community got the education it needed,” Johnson said. “We have taken that foundation and have built on it.”
For several church members like Tim Baitey and David L. Stokes, they remember stories about the school being at Flat Rock.
One of its famous school members was folk artist Nellie Mae Rowe. She had works displayed at the High Museum in Atlanta and attended Flat Rock as a member before her death in 1982. She is buried in the church cemetery.
“We still have people in this church that went to that school,” Goode said. “The school was extremely important to how black people wanted their children to have more than what they had growing up. The way that they did it was through education.”
Today, nearly 70 percent of the congregation has a college education. The church also had 13 students go off to college in 2017 and get quarterly stipends for their good work.
It is that educational and family atmosphere that keeps Baitey and Stokes coming back to the church for over 50 years. While they didn’t attend the school, they know that Flat Rock is their home and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I can remember when we only had service here once a month,” Baitey said. “It was only on second Sunday. We had one pastor that would preach on second Sunday and he rotated around to different churches.”
Stokes agreed and noted that the members had to follow one pastor around to all of his churches on a given Sunday.
“We would go to our church and then go to Flipper Chapel AME and from there we went to Holly Grove AME in Peachtree City,” Stokes said.
As Stokes and Bailey look back on how far the church has come, they can’t help but smile at just how gracious God has been to Flat Rock. Both lived through times of church struggles and are now happy to be serving under the leadership of Reverend Johnson.
“It was the biggest joy in my heart that God had answered our prayers,” Baitey said. “From the first day he has been here, the church hasn’t been the same. Reverend Johnson has taken it to a new level.”
As Flat Rock progresses into the future, Johnson has the church working with several neighboring churches in the area. He has a great relationship with Grace Evangelical Church and First Fayette United Methodist Church. The churches work together on community events and Johnson has even preached at sunrise services and plays at both churches. In addition, Grace Evangelical also helped Flat Rock pay for their new Family Life Center with a $5,000 donation. They also donated a church van, table sets, and chairs for the Family Life Center.
This donation helped in getting the nearly $700,000 building paid off. The church is currently paying down the bank loan and has raised around $300,000 from Flat Rock members.
“We were so thankful that God used Grace Evangelical Church to be the initiators of this coming together as a community,” Johnson said. “Now we fostered good relationships like larger white churches like First Fayette United Methodist Church.”
Grace Evangelical also sent its entire congregation to pray over the entire exterior of Flat Rock after the church door shooting. In a display of solidarity, the gestures showed that the community supports Flat Rock and its purpose.
“For me, that was true evidence that God wanted us to be a part of galvanizing the community,” Johnson said. “While it was a tragic incident, it was the catalyst for us to come together with the white churches in our community.”
Flat Rock plans to continue being a shining light for the Fayetteville community and hopes to be a resource for those who desire it. The congregation knows that its foundation of family and faith is the reason why they will keep striving for success.
“The church becomes your family,” Goode said. “I look to the church for all my needs and you really depend on the church as your supporter.”
Flat Rock AME Church is located at 148 Old Chapel Ln. in Fayetteville. For more information, visit them online at www.flatrockamechurch.org.