A Congregation That Weathers The Crossroads
The crossroads experience of re-aligning and re-shaping ministry during the COVID-19 outbreak into the online world was a new experience for most congregations throughout the country and world, but in many ways it was not atypical for this congregation. We have been at similar crossroads before. Times of discord push a church congregation past the familiar waystations of Making Do or Compromising or Accepting the Status Quo or Hoping Something Will Change. In the face of challenging times, our congregation has often chosen the path of daring faith.
We stand with pride at how we’ve faced various crossroads in our 150-year history and it provides a context for understanding who we are today, where we are heading in the future, and why we again are stepping out in faith that God’s purpose for this congregation is vital and central. This is part of our DNA.
So, let’s look at some of the decisions that have defined First Baptist Church Birmingham/Sanctuary in the past—the ones that give confidence that we will meet the challenge of the current day with God-given direction.
In the early days, the fledgling church chose to become associated with the Northern Baptist Convention, now called the American Baptist Churches-USA. The Convention was the result of a split with Baptists in southern states over the issue of slavery. This decision set the stage for the congregation’s continued growth in its understanding of social justice, an evolving process that has played out over the years.
Resolute, sacrificial steadfastness.
Three years after its founding in June 1870, church members built their first wooden church building. As the membership steadily increased, especially during the 1920s, two visionary pastors were called, one following the other, who energized this growing congregation. Coupled with the prosperity of that decade, their vision for the future led the congregation to build a permanent structure. The stock market crash of October 1929 happened just six months after the cornerstone was laid for our current beautiful English Gothic building, a structure financed by members mortgaging their personal homes. After the crash, the congregation survived on faith and credit. Sometimes, members sold parcels of land, to meet the Church’s mortgage payments. Today, that 1929 sanctuary with its striking stained glass windows, as well as the 1959 education wing, is an architectural landmark in Birmingham.
But more than external headwinds buffeted First Baptist as central questions about identity, theology and polity, faith and practice challenged the Church and all its members. Like many Protestant churches, from the 1930s through the 1950s, the controversy between the Fundamentalists and the Modernists deeply divided the Church. Ministers with opposing views would alternately be called, each not lasting very long. For a while, two opposing groups even met simultaneously in different locations of the building for worship. After painful soul searching, and self-examination, our church came to a decision—Yes prevailed over No. We said yes to open membership (accepting baptism by means other than immersion). Yes to open communion. Yes to ecumenism. Yes to modern biblical scholarship. Yes to individual freedom to interpret scripture, and, yes to women in ministry at a time when it was very unpopular.
On multiple occasions, the church has come to a crossroad where we were asked to reconsider our answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Each time, the congregation has expanded beyond cultural comfort zones to reach out locally, regionally, and internationally. Following the global turmoil and destruction of World War II, millions of people were displaced, becoming refugees from conflict, seeking peace wherever they could find it. This congregation called as our pastor a man of heightened social consciousness due to his experience working with Americans of Japanese descent who had been forced by the U.S. government into internment camps during the War. He inspired the congregation to make a difference in the lives of immigrants, which led over the years to sponsoring four Hungarian couples, a Ukrainian couple, an immigrant family from Germany, and a refugee family from Laos. We have continuously supported outreach efforts in Hamtramck (a community near Detroit) whose residents are increasingly recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. We have expanded our mission efforts to now include Freedom House, a unique effort in Detroit that provides housing and resources to those seeking asylum. Members have travelled to northeast India to train pastors or teach economic development skills as part of peacemaking efforts in an area still involved in a civil war with the government of India. Our homeless neighbors come to live in our church building every year for a week, as we provide up close and personal contact, meals and transportation.
And, we have found that being at the crossroads sometimes means having to take a stand that challenges and confronts the beliefs of our neighbors, our government, and even our denomination. In the early 1970s, the church and four other Birmingham churches formed a non-profit housing corporation called Baldwin House, for the purpose of submitting a proposal to build senior housing in Birmingham. However, in order to secure the necessary federal HUD financing approval, housing for persons with low income and members of minority groups were required to be added to the proposal. Over the next 20 years, the effort to build Baldwin House brought civic discord, led to the recall of a mayor, and the filing of a lawsuit against the city for racial discrimination that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the laser focus of the investigative news program, Sixty Minutes. Patience and tenacity were finally rewarded when Baldwin House opened for occupancy on August 3, 1994.
A different kind of test was posed when some American Baptist Churches were disfellowshipped by their Region for formally identifying themselves as “welcoming and affirming” churches to people identifying as LGBTQ. After a deliberate study of both sexuality and Baptist principles of association, the church widely distributed a letter to other American Baptist churches, Regions, national staff, and boards condemning such disfellowshipping.
Now, we are at another crossroads, one where many mainline Protestant churches are experiencing record decline in numbers and have contracted. We have chosen our new path forward amid a politically and socially contentious culture by deliberately carving out space for a diversity of people to have "A Safe Place to Explore Faith.”