The challenge of following the personal example of Martin Luther King Jr. is something the Rev. Raphael Warnock knows about.
His title: senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
That’s the same church where King was co-pastor with his father for several years during the civil rights era of the 1960s.
King was baptized there and in 1948 was ordained a minister there. Twenty years later, his funeral was at Ebenezer Baptist, and today the church is part of a historic site administered by the National Park Service.
So, is the Ebenezer pulpit a burden or blessing for a pastor?
Both, Warnock said recently — but in a good way.
“I feel exceedingly blessed to have been asked to come and serve as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church,” said Warnock, who spoke at the Urban Summit in Kansas City on Saturday and was scheduled to speak today at the Martin Luther King Day interfaith observance at 3:30 p.m. at Community Christian Church.
“Yes, it is a burden but, in the words of Jesus, it is an easy burden, a light burden. The work is that of justice, and the justice-making that we associate with Martin Luther King Jr.”
Warnock has served at Ebenezer since 2005, and at 35 he became the youngest person ever to be named the church’s senior pastor.
“It is a church that has had only five senior pastors since its founding in 1886, so when you come to that church, there is the expectation that you will lead and that you will lead for a long time,” Warnock said.
Born in Savannah, Ga., Warnock grew up the son of Pentecostal preachers. He graduated from Morehouse College in 1991 and earned a master of divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
He served as intern at the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church of Birmingham, Ala., where he was mentored by the Rev. John T. Porter, a former associate of King. Warnock later was assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, once led by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
From his post at Ebenezer, Warnock has pursued a consistent social justice agenda.
In 2008 Warnock — with longtime Georgia legislator Julian Bond and U.S. Rep. John Lewis — invited the press to the church’s sanctuary, where they swabbed the insides of their mouths.
The demonstration of the saliva test for HIV-AIDS was meant to raise awareness of the threat that the virus presents to the African-American community.
His sermons, many available on YouTube, often address controversy.
Last March 25, when many ministers across the country spoke about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager who was wearing a hoodie sweatshirt the night he was killed in Florida, Warnock addressed his congregation wearing a Morehouse College hoodie.
“I wonder what’s so frightening about a black man in a hood?” Warnock asked his congregation members, many of whom also in hoodies.
“History suggests,” he added, to growing laughter and cheers, “that we have good reason to fear people moving through our neighborhoods wearing hoods.”
The expectations that come with the position at Ebenezer provide a challenge, he said.
“People ask me all the time what is it like to find myself walking in Dr. King’s shoes.
“I’ve been very clear that I am not walking in Dr. King’s shoes. I am standing on his shoulders. The issues that Dr. King raised in his era are still relevant, and all freedom-loving people who are interested in social justice stand on Dr. King’s shoulders.”