Last 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.
Much 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.