An wall panel detailing the history of Enslaved Africans and Native Americans at First Church in Cambridge
a group posing for a photo
a poster with names of enslaved persons on it
Mural showing a history of action against racial injustice.

Racial Justice

In recent years, First Church has been working to reckon with our history of enslaving persons of African and Indigenous descent and to learn about the harmful, inequitable living legacy of slavery and white supremacy in our church, city, and nation.  We are asking how we can make reparation and work together to eradicate racial inequality in our lives, our church, and wider communities. What follows is our Vision for Being an Antiracist Church.  The language of this vision and the action that it prompts are an ongoing ‘work-in-progress,’ and we will be integrating feedback, new ideas, and learnings along the way of this lifelong journey of faith and justice.

OUR VISION FOR BEING AN ANTIRACIST CHURCH

 

First Church in Cambridge commits to being an antiracist church. We reject white supremacy and racism in all forms and believe this work is our call to follow Jesus and exercise faithfulness to God.

We commit to the spiritual practice of fighting racism; to ongoing reckoning with our history; and to transforming our personal, social, and professional lives by educating ourselves and intervening when harm is threatened or done.

We repent of white supremacy culture, anti-Black racism, and all forms of racial hierarchy within our church, and we will uproot them. We are working to shift the harmful narrative of race and white supremacy that has too often been reinforced by distorted and destructive political, economic, and theological beliefs and structures.

We commit to use, share, and relinquish whatever power and privilege we may have to dismantle systemic racism in our wider community by joining the struggle alongside other antiracist organizations, centering the voices of those who have been traditionally silenced or oppressed, and following the lead of Black and Indigenous people and all People of Color.

We commit to loving others and ourselves by affirming the dignity and beauty of all human beings, who are created in the loving image of God. We commit to welcoming and building relationships across cultural, ethnic, and racial differences.

We do this work because the spiritual health and positive transformation of our church, our community, and our nation depends on it. We do this humbly, with courage, in fellowship with our neighbors, and relying on God’s grace to shepherd us towards a just, equitable, and peaceful world.

OUR CURRENT WORK

 

No multi-year strategy or action plan will be sufficient to address the depth of work needed on our individual and collective journeys towards racial justice, healing, and liberation. The above statement calls us each to take action immediately in our lives, church and communities. What follows are steps that First Church is committed to taking in 2021. Please revisit this space regularly for updates.

HEALING OUR CHURCH CULTURE

  • In February, over 30 leaders attended a ”Being an Antiracist Church” Leadership Retreat, at which we examined how characteristics of white supremacy culture pervade our First Church institutional culture. We also worked to further identify near and long-term action steps for antiracist transformation in all corners of church life and leadership.
  • We are 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.
  • We are 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 help us learn how to best support and encourage increasingly diverse congregational leadership.
  • We are including more diverse music and visual representations in our worship life and sanctuary (i.e. our new Advent and Lenten banners depicting Mary, Elizabeth, and Jesus as persons of color).

REPAIRING THE BREACH

  • Land Acknowledgment. We are working to finalize and broadly share a First Church land acknowledgment in conversation with members of local Indigenous communities.
  • Focus Groups.  First Church has conducted focus groups with community members who have been most impacted by White Supremacy in order to hear their perspective on how to best offer repair and reparations. Karlene Griffiths Sekou presented a report of her focus group findings in a recent after-church Zoom session on March 7, 2021.  See a recording of that session here. She also led a follow up discussion on April 18. A recording of that second session can be found here.
  • Support for Individual, Local and Churchwide Reparations.  We are developing recommendations and criteria for our giving and grants, our work with vendors and contractors, and our individual and collective financial lives through the lens of racial justice and reparations. We recently created a First Church Reparations Fund.
  • Ongoing Action with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO). We are an active member of this multiracial coalition working on state and local issues impacting racial equity and justice.
  • Ongoing Work with Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries (CMM). First Church members have participated in the Clergy and Laity for Affordable Housing program and have participated in conversational circles to better understand white supremacy.
  • Ongoing Relationship Building.  We are deepening connections between First Church in Cambridge and Pentecostal Tabernacle Church, through joining PTC’s weekly “Biblical Justice” prayer calls and through efforts being led by Rev. Dan Smith, Carlyle Stewart, and Bishop Brian Greene.

Learning Together

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 are exploring 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. Winter/Lent 2021 Faith and Life Small Groups include:

  • Racial Justice and Healing:  A Caucus for White Men
  • “Seeing White” Podcast Discussion Group
  • How to Raise an Antiracist Child
  • A Reparations Accountability group

Adult Formation Series

Adult Formation sessions (offered on Sunday mornings before the worship service) have included presentations on First Church’s history of complicity with slavery, including Stories Impossible to Tell and Searching for Phillip Field and a 2020 Lenten Series of  theological reflections on Dr. James Cone’s on The Cross and the Lynching Tree.  Recent Adult Formation Series have included:

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.

Learning on Your Own

This coming fall, our Beloved Community, Christian Formation, and Missions and Social Justice groups are teaming up to offer a range of opportunities to learn more about the living legacy of settler colonialism.  We look forward to learning on our own and in conversation with members of local indigenous tribes.  In the meantime, we invite you to set aside some time for reading and viewing on your own.  Please consider the following suggestions:

  • Watch the PBS Independent Lens documentary We Still Live Here – Âs Nutayuneân. This is the powerful “story of the revitalization of the Wampanoag language, the first time a language with no native speakers has been revived in this country. The Wampanoag’s ancestors ensured the survival of the Pilgrims in New England, and lived to regret it. Nevertheless, through resilience and courage they kept their identity alive and remained on their ancestral lands. Now a cultural revival is taking place. The story begins in 1994 when Jessie Little Doe, an intrepid, 30-something Wampanoag social worker, began having recurring dreams: familiar-looking people from another time addressing her in an incomprehensible language. Jessie was perplexed and a little annoyed — why couldn’t they speak English? Later, she realized they were speaking Wampanoag, a language no one had used for more than a century…”
  • Visit the Upstander Project.  Watch the award-winning documentary, Dawnland, which First Church screened in 2019, and the short 9 minute film, Bounty about the Phips Bounty Proclamation, named after First Church member and Lt. Governor Spencer Phips.  On October 3, 2021, First Church hosted a premiere of Bounty that was followed by conversation with Maine-Wabanaki Truth Commissioner gkisedtanamoogk (Mashpee Wampanoag) Upstander Project learning director Dr. Mishy Lesser.
  • Learn about the Doctrine of Discovery by viewing this United Church of Christ webinar entitled What is the Doctrine of Discovery and this talk by scholar Robert Williams entitled Savage Anxieties, Part I (starting at 6:50-32:45).
  • Visit the North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB) website and learn about current legislative priorities and other opportunities for engagement
  • Visit the Native American Resource Information page at The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Commission on Indian Affairs
  • Explore this extensive list of further Indigenous Allyship Resources

Suggestions for more general antiracist reading 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 antiracist.  Or see this growing list of antiracism resources including articles, films, blogs, and more.  We also encourage members to support, invest in and follow the lead of Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color-led businessesorganizations, or protests, as you are able.

Owning Our History

 

First Church has 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, our church, and our city today.

Learn MorE