Atlanta’s Dr. R. L. White Celebrates 50 Years in the Ministry
“I've met many pastors over the course of my career and ministry - none have ministered to and served the masses with earnest humility quite like the Reverend Dr. Roy Lee White." – Rev. Markel Hutchins
“I like to teach and tune. I preach but at the end of the message I go for the heart.” – Dr. R.L. White
For the past five decades, Dr. R.L. White has proven to be one of Atlanta’s premier preachers, and among its most revered and respected clergymen. But that has just been only one of his significant and substantive leadership roles.
Dr. White has been a challenging and consummate civil rights activist during his 17 years as Atlanta’s NAACP President, as well the academic alumni captain at The Interdenominational Theological Center [ITC] and a meaningful, masterful minister.
“I feel when you preach you must inspire people to do something,” opines the spry and spirited 74-year young Rev. White. “When they asked me to be president of the NAACP, I said that would give a lot of members something to do after the preaching, so I then inspired them to come and help me [with civil rights issues’. At the same time, I was president of the National Alumni Association at ITC for 29 years. But to me all of that is just ministry.”
Dr. White preached his first sermon in Washington D.C. on his 24th birthday. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated just four days after White’s initial sermon. After 50 years in the pulpit, he is still growing in grace as a biblical scholar. “It’s been a journey,” he says.
“A ‘Legend’ is one who is able to sustain greatness for an extended amount of time. Dr. RL White rests comfortably within that category,” opines Dr. Joseph Williams, pastor of Atlanta’s Salem Bible Church. “He has been a pillar in our community for nearly half of a century. He has paved the way for change and many generations to come after him. Atlanta is blessed to have such a jewel.”
Attending Dr. White’s Mount. Ephraim Baptist Church is an exhilarating experience; his presence and popularity are palpable. His sermons are passionate, powerful and persuasive. The title of a recent Sunday sermon was “Living with Guilt.” To this reporter, it revealed why White is considered such an articulate, deliberate and crafty orator and biblical storyteller.
“In the last 50 years he has brought inspiration, reconciliation, and you heard it today, a sense of not holding guilt,” 46-year long Mount Ephraim member Mattie Baxter tells me following that March church service. “His main purpose is that souls will be saved. I believe he’s preaching because he is concerned about mankind. The way he shows his concern is by preaching the word, the understandable word, not a whole lot of theological written words. He knows them, but he wants some people who don’t even have a bible to understand what he is saying. He does this to reach people on various levels.”
Dr. Gerald Durley, the former pastor of Providence Baptist Church, is often called the “Dean” of Atlanta’s Black clergy. He considers Dr. White a good friend and a good man.
“He never forgot the older people, and he brought younger people along in his multiple ministries as well,” Durley says of what he calls White’s divine integrity in sharing the word of Christ. “When he was over the NAACP, he was never shy about using his musical skills and musical talents. White can sing royally. In his sermons he was always about the least, the lost, the left behind. He was the epitome, in my mind, of what a gospel, Christian pastor ought to be. If I had to come up with one word to characterize R.L. White it would be gracious –that entails transparency, honesty and compassion.”
Atlanta is widely known for its mega-churches, and allegedly, the mega-egos of many prominent African American ministers. Dr. White is not one of them. “I’ve watched this church grow from 13 members to where we are now. It’s a pretty good size considering we started with 13 and now we up to over 13,000. If I get big headed I know God will pull me back down. The Bible teaches us to humble ourselves,” he says.
Dr. White has been the pastor of Mt. Ephraim for 48 years. He’s an accomplished gospel singer, piano and guitar performer, as well. And, White has also been a civil rights activist all his life. In fact, politics and civil rights have been dominant throughout his career and in his many roles as a trailblazer.
“I bring honesty into politics through preaching,” opines Dr. White, who is married to former WAOK radio talk show host Dr. Lorraine Jacques White. “I loved civil rights because of my upbringing when I was a kid in Macon. I experienced the Ku Klux Klan crossing my lawn. The only few hours I spent in jail when I was about 17, was because I told a white man he was lying. I don’t want my brothers and sisters to go through that. So, I have always warned them that you’re not better than anyone else but we’re just as good as anybody else. I practiced that in the NAACP and throughout my life.”
White adds, “When I was growing up the NAACP was a key civil rights group and we had mass meetings held at the church. I have always put the two together. I always view it as an extension of what I do.”
While Dr. White is praised by his pulpit contemporaries, he is equally held in high regard by a cadre of younger preachers such as Salem’s Dr. Williams, and activist Rev. Markel Hutchins who salute his influence and impact as a principled preacher.
“Dr. White is a great man and an extraordinarily humble servant. I’ve been preaching for him (at his church) since I was a teenager,” says Rev. Markel Hutchins. "Dr. White is an exemplar as to the power of visionary, public spiritual leadership that transcends the pulpit to transform people, institutions and communities. In an era where many preachers sought to build mega churches, Dr. White focused on building a mega ministry with mega impact on those he is called to serve. Dr. White truly cares about his parishioners, his community and humanity. Although he is one of God's most gifted preachers and traditional gospel singers, the genuine humility that he conveys is uncommon among his colleagues and contemporaries. I first met him more than two decades ago when, as a teenager, he invited me to preach for 'Youth Day' at Mount Ephraim. I've met many pastors over the course of my career and ministry - none have ministered to and served the masses with earnest humility quite like the Reverend Dr. Roy Lee White."
Many African American church communities have been known to experience factional family feuds that are often aimed at issues and angst involving its pastor. Larry Perry, Mount Ephraim’s Chairman of the Board argues that Dr. White remains a beloved shepherd of his flock.
Well, what makes him different is he genuinely is concerned about members; he loves his members,” Perry says. “Out of all the pastors that I’ve been around, he is one of the pastors that can individually just know people. To have a congregation that size that we have, you can see the genuine love that he has for his people.”
“I like to incorporate teaching into preaching,” Dr. White reveals during our lengthy interview. “In slavery days we were not allowed to preach. When preachers felt the urge to preach, they would preach in the cotton fields in the name of singing. That’s been a cultural tradition and upbringing of ours. I like to teach and tune. I preach but at the end of the message I go for the heart.”
Atlanta’s Black churches are struggling to retain members and attract new younger ones in this era. Dr. White and Mount Ephraim have seemingly rebutted that notion and trend. Two young people joined Mount Ephraim the Sunday this reporter was in the congregation, as an example. That’s why Dr. White’s church reportedly ranks among the top 10 Black congregations in Atlanta.
“He is classified among the best of the best, widely and worldly respected,” Perry opines. “The challenge of our church is to bring the youth in and keep the message relevant for the youth as well as those of us who have been here awhile and are seasoned Christians. He tries to minister to both. We have youth programs of course.”
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s murder and Dr. White’s 50th anniversary in the ministry, I asked him that based on all he has seen and preached about during the past half century, where do Black people go from here?
“What I would like to see from here is to see our people have a different kind of pride, more pride in owning things, and not only being the last up,” White says. “Learn how to be in business and support each other. That has been my goal for years. When I had this building built I wanted it to be built by Black people and supported by Black people.”
Dr. White concludes that his legacy will be: “Somebody that’s real and really loved the Lord!
L-R: Larry Perry, Dr. R.L. White and Maynard Eaton