Winford Smith remembers when, as chairman of the pastor search team for First Baptist Church, Stockbridge, Georgia, he realized the group needed to make a change.
The team had agreed beforehand that whoever served as interim pastor would not be a candidate. However, the man who had been preaching each Sunday stood out from others in consideration.
“Our team had been meeting for about a year and a half, but no one jumped out at us,” said Carol Clark, a longtime church member also serving on the search team. “But when we heard him preach, his face was just shining with the love of Christ. We’d fallen in love with him and how he presented God’s word. There was something there our congregation had never heard.”
Yes, depending on your point of view, Emmanuel Ofori-Atta stood out at First, Stockbridge, a city of 30,000 south of Atlanta. First, Stockbridge’s congregation — traditional and aging — was undeniably white. Ofori-Atta — a native of Ghana — was undeniably Black. Yet, those were not the details that stood out for the search team.
Ofori-Atta’s background prepared him for working within a large group. His late father, Emmanuel Adu, was a king in the west African nation’s Eastern Region, which contains more than 500,000 people. King Emmanuel had 44 children among six wives, 12 of them with Ofori-Atta’s mother.
Ofori-Atta credits his mother’s godly influence in leading him to become a pastor and his twin brother’s leadership in the music ministry of an evangelistic church in London.
Madam Hannah Padiki, who died in 2016 at 103 years old, would dedicate her twin boys to the Lord.
“It was so we could be a blessing to the world, to serve God and God’s people,” Ofori-Atta said. “She was a very disciplined woman of prayer. My discipleship came from her.”
After living with his brother in London, Ofori-Atta moved to the United States to work at a Wells Fargo Bank in Charlotte, North Carolina. He later transferred to another branch in Stockbridge and eventually become pastor of International Bible Church, which met on First, Stockbridge’s campus.
International Bible Church is a majority Filipino church that had never had an African pastor. Nevertheless, Ofori-Atta built a strong relationship with the congregation and when First, Stockbridge’s pastor of 24 years, Steve Murrell, retired, Ofori-Atta was asked to serve as the interim pastor. He accepted, and a mentoring relationship developed between him and Murrell.
“First Baptist knew Emmanuel fairly well because of joint services they would have with IBC,” said Ray Gentry, associational missions strategist for Southside Baptist Network. “Steve would meet with Emmanuel about once a month. It was a good connection.”
Gentry and others took part in Ofori-Atta’s ordination service Jan. 17.
“He’s a very good preacher and doing a wonderful job,” Gentry said. “After that ordination council meeting, the deacons were unanimously impressed with their pastor.”
Ofori-Atta was slated to be voted in as the church’s pastor last spring. Due to COVID-19, however, the vote was postponed until late summer.
As part of the church’s COVID-19-related protocols, First, Stockbridge, takes temperatures outside the building and requires masks. Ofori-Atta’s efforts to provide both Sunday morning and evening services as well as the Wednesday night meeting online has kept members in touch.
“There’s a beautiful spirit among our members from his leadership,” Clark said. “We can’t wait to get back together each week to hear his message. He’s been very diligent in getting God’s word out through Facebook and YouTube.”
‘Heart of God’
Yes, there have been hurdles. It’s not uncommon in conversations for phrases to be repeated, as Southern accents can be as interesting to navigate as those from Ghana. Ofori-Atta has taken well to American food — most notably Burger King and Southern staples like green beans, fried chicken and mashed potatoes. When sitting down at home for dinner with church members, he and his wife Rebecca have learned they need to tone down their normal amount of spices.
“My Caucasian brothers and sisters may not be used to it,” he said.
Ofori-Atta is thankful the search team made that change in the rules for considering candidates nearly two years ago.
“The wonderful people of First Baptist have experienced what the Lord can do when the church begins to look at the heart of God,” he said. “It’s allowed me to be part of such a wonderful, historic church that has been part of this community for centuries.”
Like many areas, Stockbridge is changing, Smith, the deacon chairman, said.
“Our neighborhood, city and county are becoming more diverse,” he said. “That’s not why we called Brother Emmanuel, though. It just worked out that way. He’s who the Lord brought to us.
“He’s good for our church; he’s good for the community.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This article was originally published by Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. This article also appears in TAB News, a digital regional Baptist publication. For more information or to subscribe to the TAB News app, visit tabonline.org/TAB-News-app.