First Church has identified racial justice and working to confront white privilege as a critical priority. The Racial Justice Working Group, which is comprised of members of the congregation, had developed a strategy and is implementing programs and events that forward its goals.
Among these efforts, the group worked with other volunteers to plan and develop a discussion group focused on white privilege and using a curriculum developed by the United Church of Christ. In addition, the church has screened films followed by discussions and shared articles, podcasts, and other materials with congregants. The racial justice strategy document defines priorities related to internal (personal), internal (congregational), and external (community) transformation. These efforts build on the church’s 2003 designation as a Multi-Racial, Multi-Cultural congregation.
The decision to designate itself as such affirms that racial justice has been a priority for First Church since it was founded in 1865 as the first integrated church in Washington, DC. Two years after its founding, First Church helped found Howard University in support of education and uplift to freed enslaved African Americans. The congregation’s first defining crisis occurred almost immediately when the church’s first pastor – a segregationist who was not a founder of the church – and more than half the congregation departed following a conflict over whether black and white people should indeed worship together. That left the congregation with an even stronger commitment to racial justice. In the late 1800s, African American members numbered 30 – 50, and Frederick Douglass and other prominent blacks were regular visitors.
In the 1950s and 1960s, First Church was a strong supporter of civil rights and served as a meeting place for interracial meetings and as a staging area for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Yet, much work remains to be done. Our 150th anniversary in 2015 provided us with an opportunity to reflect with pride and honesty on our founding and provided us with ethical grounding that will inform our future. Who do we want to be on our 200th anniversary?
Although First Church’s founders were abolitionists, many of them – like abolitionists more broadly – stopped short of calling for racial equality. And while the congregation recommitted to working on racial justice after the early departure of its segregationist first pastor, First Church, like many others, has had moments worthy of celebration as well as some of which it is less proud.
What does it mean to be a prophetic voice in 2017? Rather than pat ourselves on the back in 2017 for our 150 years of good intentions, we believe we are called to push ourselves to discern, articulate, and act on what we need to do during the next 50 to 100 years to end racism in the church, community, and country. Our goal is to ensure that members of First Church in 2065 will be able to look back and say of us, “they got it right.”
Click here for our Approach to Racial Justice.