The Providence Preservation Society brings this to our attention: The Congdon Street Baptist Church, the oldest surviving African American church in the city, is raising funds for much-needed capital improvements.
Completed and dedicated in 1875, the earlier congregation had to contend with troublesome neighbors early on.
A period of prosperity was followed by a period of devastation and dire hardship for the church. It was during this latter period, 1863 to about 1870, that hostile white neighbors had the church torn down leaving the small black congregation bereft of its place of worship.
And yes, I am trying to guilt our white readers into making amends. The history at the church’s website also includes its role during the Civil Rights movement of the sixties.
By being a safe space, the church became a sanctuary for African-American students at Brown University and Pembroke College in 1968 during their student walkout. The end of the student walkout did not see the end of Congdon Street’s affiliation with African-American students at Brown and Pembroke as members of the church continued to open their homes to the students.
The fight for civil rights during the 1960s led many members of the congregation to the streets where they marched on Cranston Street with Doctor Martin Luther King Jr to show that Black lives and rights matter.
(The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. also appeared before an enormous crowd at URI in October of 1966 where he delivered this hard truth: The appalling silence of the good people is as serious as the virtiolic words of the bad people. As true today as it was 54 years ago. The Providence Journal has a photo gallery of those visits.)
While the physical building needs intense upgrades inside and out, the church’s young pastor, The Reverend Justin Lester, thinks many Black churches need serious philosophical updating as well. Raised in Milwaukee by pastor parents, Lester wants to do away with the old ways of thinking about women and gays and bring his congregation into the modern era. From a recent ProJo article about coping in the pandemic:
“The institution of church is just so flawed,” he explains. “I had a lot of questions, and no space to ask them. It was always just, ‘Trust Jesus, pray harder, keep it moving.’ ”
. . . The misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia Lester witnessed growing up turned him away from the church. But, in a way, it’s also what brought him back.
“My calling as a pastor,” he says, “is to uproot these things — to tear down, to destroy and then to build from there.” Lester’s philosophy of rebuilding, of breaking tradition, has guided him through figuring out what church means during a pandemic.
The Rev. Lester comes across as very likable (the fundraising campaign isn’t even mentioned in this article for some reason). The church is on Congdon Street at DeFoe Place, just down the street from Prospect Terrace. The street side got repaired and painted a few years ago, but much work remains.
The Congdon Street Baptist Church is an historically important building that enriches the Providence streetscape and needs to be saved on that basis alone. But also, here we are in the year of Black Lives Matter, why not let this be a tangible demonstration of the changes we all hope to be making in our hearts.
Contributions can be made by check (payable to Congdon Street Baptist Church), or go online to give. Mail your donation to:
Congdon Street Baptist Church
Attn: Finance Dept
17 Congdon Street
Providence, RI 02906