Open Doors, Open Hearts

rev. barberLast week, training for the Moral Revival came to First Church in Roxbury. The Rev. William Barber II, architect of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays and the reclamation of religion for the poor and marginalized, taught Boston clergy and lay leaders about the history of reconstruction and voter disenfranchisement and called on them to help make change.

The justice leader preached in the church where abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s funeral was held on May 28, 1879, and where – in an earlier church building on the same spot – First Church minister Amos Adams in 1768 delivered a sermon titled “The Slave Trade is a Spectacle that Shocks Humanity.” Rev. Barber’s presence seemed fitting.

Not all First Church Roxbury history, though, is on the side of rightness or racial justice. As we begin digging into our past to understand our future, we also discovered that when the third Meeting House was raised in 1740, the west corner was reserved for African Americans “so as not to intrude on the pews in the said West Galleries.” And, in more modern times, elder African American community members recall times they didn’t feel welcomed at First Church.

We continue to dig, and learn, in the hopes of being honest about the past, and with an eye toward the future.

meetinghouse windowMuch of the peeling paint on First Church now has been stripped away. Wooden planks are bare, and plastic sheets cover every window. The Steeple is shrouded in black netting, making it hard to see against the skyline from Ruggles Street now. Our historic building, elegant and iconic, is being transformed. The goal is preserving the past, and also becoming something New: A Cultural Center with community-building at the heart of it.

A Latin American folk concert and presentation on Black Composers were held within the Meetinghouse this summer, and Handel & Haydn will perform in November. They perform in a space the still needs work – a new sound system, repaired pews, repainted walls.

The work isn’t finished yet. But we are throwing open the doors wide open, ready to keep working, and for what’s to come.

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Into the Cocoon

first church roxburyThe frame of First Church is partly enshrouded now by black fabric, as workers strip old paint from the wood.  The fabric keeps lead chips from floating away. The clock is hidden, and the broken shutters removed and stored. Plywood enclosures cover the front steps.

The effect is like a building being slowly wrapped, a giant gift to be opened some morning.

first church roxburyAnd, indeed, this is what we are working toward. For some years, elegant First Church Roxbury has been chipping and fading.  And now the UU Urban Ministry has laid the groundwork to restore its beauty and transform it into a cultural center.

  • This summer, more than 10 arts events will be held inside or on our greenspace.
  • We have secured contractors and the work has begun.
  • We have received grants to help support the work: We are proud to have recently won an esteemed Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
  • We continue to reach out to additional funders who share our vision for preservation, for this community, and for the arts.
  • We are hosting donor cultivation events in our UU church communities to raise awareness of the important of this building.

covered steepleLast weekend, Unitarian Universalists from Lexington gathered in a home there, to hear more about the story of the Meetinghouse: How it served this community since it was built in 1804, and stands on the site where the religious community gathered since 1631.  How important it is to make it shine, again, in the present. The growing care for this building was palpable.

Our Roxbury neighbors ask about progress, too, and offer support and ideas for funding. They watch over the property, as they have for decades, it is stripped, and made new, again.

We all come together, across communities, one community, to peel away history and make this new, again.

 

Getting Started!

Getting Started!

The scaffolding went up this month and I imagined a collective sigh of relief.

I sighed myself, certainly, but was confident others joined me: Roxbury neighbors and historic preservationists. Members of the churches that make up our nonprofit organization. Those who believe we better navigate the present by recalling the past.

In June, the scaffolding began rising at the front of First Church Roxbury, and I imagined a collective sigh of relief at this concrete sign that this most important Boston building will be preserved into the future.

first church signWhen I arrived nearly 2 years ago to serve as Executive Director and Senior Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, I did not know what to think of our possession of this historic – and empty – building. As deeply rooted nonprofit serving Boston with services for those in need, this elegant, shabby building was a puzzle.

The UU Urban Ministry operates a domestic violence shelter, an afterschool program for high school students, an affordable housing program. We also offer social justice forums and cultural events designed to confront the inequities of our times – racism, income inequality, violence – and to gather people together across race, class and faith. The heart of our work is finding ways to bring people together to make connections and real change.

first church roxburyMuch of that work now happens at our campus on John Eliot Square in Roxbury – an extraordinary patch of land that stands much as it did when the Puritans gathered to build a Meetinghouse in 1631.

A congregation, which became Unitarian, worshiped there continuously from then until 1976 when it dwindled and merged with the UU Urban Ministry – giving over its abundant greenspace, the First Church Meetinghouse (the fifth on this site, built in 1804), and historic Putnam Chapel.

And the UU Urban Ministry began operating programs there. About 12 years ago, it moved its headquarters to the site and built the Education and Justice Center, linking First Church and Putnam Chapel. The goal was providing a beautiful space for the young people in Roxbury to learn and thrive after school there.

first church roxburyFirst Church – the oldest surviving wood-frame church in Boston, the site of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s funeral, an elegant Federal-style building overlooking Boston’s downtown skyline – grew mostly silent.

What did this striking building have to do, really, with the work of the UU Urban Ministry?

If you look up Roxbury on Wikipedia, you will see that this neighborhood is illustrated – in some ways defined by – First Church Roxbury. Roxbury has become the heart of Boston’s historic African American community. And I learned soon after arriving here that its presence and history was deeply important to the African American community here. And to historic preservationists. And to anyone with an appreciation for its beauty and prominence.

first church roxbury interiorIt is large enough to seat 800 people. It boasts beautiful acoustics. It invites a sense of awe and history. It is a place that can bring people together across race and class and faith for music, theatre, political debate. It is, indeed, a true Meetinghouse.

It had grown shabby. Its clock stopped. Its white paint peeled.

Several years ago, Historic Boston invested in a first step to evaluating what it would take to make First Church Roxbury shine again, inside and out. An initial grant allowed the UU Urban Ministry to undertake a thorough evaluation of its condition.

This month, the scaffolding went up. Under the skillful watch of preservationist Andrea Gilmore (who serves on the HBI Council of Advisors, and who has donated her time to this project) the exterior carpentry and painting are underway.

There is much work ahead.

But we can breathe a sigh of relief, because we have made visible a sign of our commitment. Our vision is transforming this building into a cultural center serving Roxbury.

Our vision is navigating the present by understanding, and preserving, the past.