The Shrine of the Black Madonna in Atlanta was founded as the ninth congregation of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church in 1975.
The denomination was originally founded in the 1950s by the Holy Patriarch Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman (born Albert B. Cleage Jr., the father of writer Pearl Cleage) in response to the theological, spiritual, and psychological needs of the African American people of Detroit, Michigan.
The church’s central theological belief is that God supports the freedom of African Americans from all forms of oppression. Jesus is called the “Black Messiah.” The Hebrew nation of the Bible is understood to be a Black nation. While Jesus is viewed as the savior of Black people, he is also seen as the savior of all humankind. He who supports all struggles for liberation.
The congregations were named after the Black Madonna to make emphasize the point to members that the mother of Jesus was Black, to recognize other images of the Black Madonna that are worshipped around the world, and to honor Black women. Belief in a Black savior and Madonna helps to counteract the damage of what the denomination calls AMBI: acceptance of the myth of Black inferiority.
In 1975 around forty members (all between the ages of eighteen and thirty) left Detroit to found a new congregation in Atlanta. By 1996 Shrine 9 had approximately 500 members. After leadership changes during that year, and the death of the founder in February 2000, the membership declined to approximately 200 members by 2001. However, the membership is still very active and committed to maintaining their its traditions and the vision of their its founder.
Worship services combine elements from Roman Catholic, charismatic, and African traditions. The congregation observes eleven sacraments. The Eucharist is practiced as the “Sacrament of Commitment.” The emphasis of this ritual is upon committing oneself to serve sacrificially and to walk in the steps of Jesus.
Training in the arts of Pa-Kua, which includes such ancient practices as meditation, yoga, and tai chi chuan, helps members of Pan African Orthodox congregations to integrate their minds, bodies, and spirits. This integration is deemed necessary in order to heal the long-term fragmentation in the Black communities resulting from the traumas of slavery and oppression.
Social services and the education of children are central to the Atlanta church. The shrine operates the West End Learning Center and the Shrine Cultural Center and Bookstore. The West End Community Services Center, which opened in September 2001, offers referral services to doctors, lawyers, and other volunteer professionals, as well as direct aid to residents of Atlanta’s West End. The learning center teaches children about their cultural and religious heritage, as well as computer skills and other academic subjects. Similarly, the goal of the bookstore and cultural center is to promote knowledge of African and African American heritage and art.
One of the shrine’s main concerns is the Beulah Land Farm Project. The goals of this Shrine-owned farm in Abbeville County, South Carolina, are to provide food for urban communities and to open a retreat center and a boarding school on the land. The Beulah Land Farm Project embodies the shrine’s values of self-sufficiency and communal living for African Americans.