It is 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I am drinking a cup of coffee, and my wife Cathlin is having half a cup. Her adrenaline has her mostly wide awake and we don’t want to tip the scales. Raphael, our host, is drinking a cup of tea, standing by the kitchen sink.

Predawn breakfasts on Sunday morning might not be the norm for most households, but for ministers this is standard operating procedure — and I am in the company of two ministers. Raphael Warnock is the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — Martin Luther King’s old church. This is the same church where in a few hours more than 2,000 people will come to hear Cathlin preach a sermon. For the past several years Raphael has visited The West Tisbury Congregational Church to preach, and now Cathlin is coming to his house.

“You know what one of my congregants does every week,” Raphael says, taking a sip of tea. “To tell me she loves me. She is an elderly woman, and each week after I preach she gives me a big chocolate bar. You know, like, good job Raphael, here’s your candy bar.”

“She’s momming you,” Cathlin says.

“Amen to that,” Raphael says.

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Cathlin and I have been in Atlanta for three days, living with Raphael and seeing the city. When we drive around I sit in the backseat of his car and let the ministers talk up front. Cathlin keeps offering me the front seat, but I decline. They are old friends, from back in seminary, and I love seeing them together, talking shop and laughing, even when discussing the difficulties of being a minister, dealing with the muck of life, the burying of people, talking them through addiction, sadness, loneliness, injustice and divorce.

“We hold people’s pain,” Raphael says, summing up one of their conversations.

“Amen to that,” Cathlin says.

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“You got your manuscript?” Raphael asks Cathlin as we prepare to leave for the church. “You ready to preach the gospel?”

It is a 15-minute drive to Ebenezer from Raphael’s house. To get to the church, you pass MLK’s birth home. In fact, the whole area around the church is a historic landmark and tourists come daily to walk this trail of history.

One of Raphael’s deacons greets us in the parking lot, leads us into the church, up the elevator and into Raphael’s office. It is huge and beautiful and on the walls are numerous pictures of him with President Obama.

While I am looking at the pictures, Raphael’s secretary knocks on the door. “The senator is here,” she says.

The senator is Leroy Johnson. He is in his late 80s now, but he was once one of the most powerful men in the South. Senator Johnson was the first African-American elected to the Georgia Senate after reconstruction, and when Muhammad Ali had his boxing license revoked due his stance against Viet Nam, it was Senator Johnson who arranged his return to ring with a fight in Georgia.

The senator greets us and spends a few moments with Cathlin, thanking her for coming and then telling her he knows she will be wonderful. Something about the way he says this is empowering, as if he still has the power to make this so.

After the senator leaves, Raphael, Cathlin and I form a circle and he says a prayer. It feels for a moment like a sporting event and we are in the locker room before the big game. But this is just my reference point, looking for the familiar in this sea of difference. I am sure Cathlin is not thinking about sports.

I look over at her with her head bowed and it is her white skin, something I usually take for granted, just like my own, that catches my eye. There is no getting around the issue of race here. On our trip down we watched the news in the Atlanta airport about the crowds in Baltimore protesting the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody.

Cathlin’s sermon today will be about friendship, looking through the lens of her long history with Raphael and the role of prophetic friendships throughout time. She will tell the story about how in seminary they led a protest by ministers, wearing their robes down at city hall in New York, after the death of Amadou Diallo in 1999, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea who was shot 41 times by the police. Some things have changed, Cathlin will say in her sermon, while others have definitely not.

“We are a people too quick to pull the trigger, to exert power over another.”

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Just before the service we are escorted down to the sanctuary which is already in full swing. At home on the Island, Cathlin sits at the pulpit and begins the proceedings. Here at Ebenezer, where Raphael has a full staff of preachers, it feels like we are the main event coming in after the crowd has been sufficiently warmed up.

Cathlin and Raphael head to the pulpit, and a deacon leads me to a seat in the pew. He suggests the first row, I lean toward the second row. The deacon pauses for a moment as if not sure how to handle this situation. I am confused, what is one row or another? We compromise when he says I can have the second row, but that I can’t sit on the aisle as that spot is reserved. Later, a very old African American woman, escorted by two other women, sits in that spot. It is Martin Luther King’s sister Christine King Farris, whom everyone calls Miss Sissy. Later in the service another one of MLK’s relatives, his sister in law, will give me a big hug and kiss both of my cheeks.

Oh Lord, we are not in New England anymore.

When it is time for the sermon, Raphael introduces Cathlin by talking about their long history together. He calls her a dear friend with a righteous rap sheet, referencing the many times she has been arrested for standing up to injustice. At home we have a picture of Cathlin wearing a beret and seated in the back of a paddy wagon with other protesters who have been arrested. We once showed this to the children as an example of their mother’s life before them, but it frightened our youngest so much we had to put it away.

It is Earth Sunday at Ebenezer, and Cathlin has been asked to also preach about the environment. She quotes from a Martin Luther King sermon about the levels of love humans experience, from friendship to humanitarian and all the way to agape love, the highest form because “it is the love of God operating in the human heart. And it comes to the point that you even love the enemy.”

She takes the congregation through these levels of love to look at how humans should strive to treat each other, and then through this same lens she paints a picture of her relationship to the earth.

“For 46 years, I have crawled, toddled and walked on this planet. Driven, biked, hiked and run upon this planet. But how well do I really know it? We love a sunset on the beach or a rainbow after a storm. We love the Earth for the aesthetic gifts it offers. We may notice the Earth, but do we invest any real time in getting to know her. Does this even merit a level of love? Dr. King might call this the utilitarian level. I love the Earth for what it gives to me. Is this a classic case of the oppressor ignoring the demands of the oppressed?”

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When Cathlin had breast cancer a few years ago and was undergoing chemotherapy treatments, her hair fell out on a Sunday morning. We shaved her head to even out the clumps and then 20 minutes later she preached her sermon. I remember crying in the pew I was so proud of my strong and brave wife.

I wept in Atlanta too. I was so proud, but in a different way. I have known Cathlin since she was 13 years old, long before she was a minister. Back then she was a punk rocking skateboarder and yet even in the often malicious scrum of high school her kindness already led the way.

Cathlin has no ego, at least not one that I can see, and I think this more than anything else makes her such a good minister and preacher. She does not seek the center stage and yet each week that is exactly where she stands. And now, in Atlanta, the stage was very large.

Cathlin once said to me that a few of her congregants told her they sometimes have a tough time going to church because they end up crying and that they would rather not do that in public. Cathlin seemed confused by this but I understood. She holds people’s pain, even in her sermons, and in Atlanta she did this again. She allows people to sit, for at least a moment, with their lives and their struggles. But perhaps even more important, her own vulnerability and hopefulness is always on display, and that, I believe, is where the tears really begin.

“It is true of friends that they call forth more from us. They believe in us when we are full of doubt. They introduce us to new possibilities for growth and learning. They show us new people and experiences. Just look at this opportunity to preach before you this morning. Rev. Warnock has stretched what is possible for me.”

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After preaching two services that day, one at 8 a.m. and another at 11 a.m., Cathlin stood in a receiving line with Raphael, greeting the congregation. Many stopped to speak with her and thank her, and more than a few said they were headed to the Vineyard this summer and would see her there.

After the church emptied out, Raphael, Cathlin and I prepared to return to his house for a quick meal as he had to lead a memorial service in just a few hours for a much-loved congregant who had been killed that week in a car accident. The sermon and Sunday service were over but now the real work of the week had already begun.

The three of us walked to Raphael’s car, Cathlin and I holding hands under the bright Atlanta sunshine. And in her free hand, identical to one Raphael had received, Cathlin carried a very large chocolate bar.