In recent years, First Church has worked to better understand our slaveholding past and to learn about the living legacy of slavery and white supremacy in our church, city and nation. We are now asking what role we can play in changing the narrative of racial inequality in Cambridge and beyond. As we remember our way into the future, we are reminded of God’s call in Isaiah 58 to be repairers of the breach.
2020 has been a year of profound racial reckoning for our country. Through our weekly “A Call to Return: Spiritual and Theological Reflections on Racial Justice” sessions led by our Community Minister for Racial Justice, through our Reparations Accountability Faith and Life group, through the ways we are examining the Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture at First Church and more, we are continuing to learn, grow, and act to become an anti-racist church.
Becoming an Anti-Racist Church
In June 2020, First Church’s Executive Council approved a statement of intent to become an anti-racist church. This statement included an invitation: “In the coming months, the Staff, Executive Council, and Deacons of First Church invite you to join us in taking on a spiritual practice aimed at disrupting our complicity with white supremacy, ending our silence about police brutality and racial inequality, and acting toward real change.
Learning on Your Own
Suggested readings include Dr. Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist and Layla Saad’s 28-day workbook White Supremacy and Me, with daily exercises and reflections for becoming an anti-racist. Or see this growing list of anti-racism resources including articles, films, blogs and more.
First Church members and friends first engaged each other with Sacred Conversations on Race in 2008. Since then, we have learned about First Church’s complicity with Northern slavery, and have continued to learn and grow in understanding of what God calls us to do to repair the damage caused by 400 years of white supremacy. Take a look at a chronology of our work together since 2008.
Faith and life groups
In recent small group conversations, First Church members and friends have explored together what anti-racism means (based on Dr. Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist), understanding white supremacy through a rigorous 28-day intensive process using Layla Saad’s workbook Me and White Supremacy, and committing to a practice of reparations.
400 Years of Inequality
In 2019, First Church joined a national coalition gathered to remember the first arrival of enslaved Africans in America in 1619. We created a timeline, based on the coalition’s model but also including key dates in First Church’s own history to track inequality in America from 1619 to the present.
Adult Formation Series
Adult Formation sessions (offered on Sunday mornings before the worship service) have included, among others:
- Presentations on First Church’s history of complicity with slavery like Stories Impossible to Tell and Searching for Phillip Field
- 2020 Lenten Series of theological reflections on Dr. James Cone’s on The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
- A 2019 series Exploring Reparations
Healing our Church Culture
From First Church’s statement on becoming an anti-racist church:
First Church affirms that Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter. We celebrate the gifts, presence, and leadership of persons of color within First Church and beyond. We recognize that the problem of racism is a white person’s problem and that this is white people’s work. Becoming an anti-racist church means that we are determined not merely to raise our consciousness of racism, but to actively call out and intentionally work for change. We do this work because we know our individual and collective spiritual health, transformation, and liberation depend on it. We do this work relying on God’s help and knowing that we cannot do it alone.
Work to heal our Church culture includes:
- Creating a framework for assessing where we are as a church on the way to our goal. The Beloved Community group and members of Executive Council have met to create goals or benchmarks of progress (in our governance/decision making, worship style, interpersonal relations among others) to track progress. Guidance in the process has come from Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. Click here to read Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture.
- Acting to disrupt practices that perpetuate white supremacy culture at First Church. Several committees of the church have begun thorough reviews of their own policies and procedures.
- Preparing to call a senior-level minister of color. A Staff Model Working Group at First Church included this goal in a staffing plan approved by the entire congregation. A team has subsequently identified benchmarks that we hope will us learn how to best support and encourage increasingly diverse congregational leadership.
Repairing the Breach
Recently, First Church has begun a careful and respectful effort to reach out to communities of color in Greater Boston.
- As part of the Public Remembrance Project, we are conducting focus groups with persons of color of all ages and classes, to solicit feedback on how best to remember First Church’s complicity with slavery and what form a program of reparations for this complicity might take.
- Our Senior Minister has begun to explore how we might establish relationships of trust with members of the Cambridge Black Pastors’ Alliance.
- A Cambridge church whose congregation is predominantly non-white has invited First Church members and friends to join a weekly prayer meeting for social justice.
- We encourage members to support, invest in, and follow the lead of Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color-led businesses, organizations, or protests, as you are able.
Owning Our History
First Church has recently begun to acknowledge and wrestle with our historic complicity in slavery. Our congregational records reveal that at least 36 persons (33 Africans and 3 Indigenous persons) were enslaved by First Church members and clergy between 1698 and 1783. After slavery in Massachusetts was abolished in 1783, First Church was largely silent on the great questions of slavery, abolition and emancipation through the Civil War and Reconstruction. We are currently engaging people within and beyond our congregation, and across racial and class lines, to discern together how we can publicly remember and honor the lives of enslaved persons that were part of our community while also acting to address the systemic racism in our lives, church and city today.