Pioneering church marches on

In Boston, Peoples Baptist marks 200 years as a force in shaping black community life.

As the morning light streams gently through stained glass windows, the congregation lifts its hands and hearts in praise to God, singing "bless the Rock of my salvation." Moments later, attendees move around the pews, greeting each other with hugs and handshakes.

In this first of two Sunday services, members of the Peoples Baptist Church in Boston celebrate their faith and commitment to community. The Rev. Wesley Roberts is preaching on "Why We Need Each Other," as the church begins a new campaign of spiritual fellowship and community service.

This month also marks another celebration: the church's 200th anniversary.

In 1805, free blacks on Boston's Beacon Hill started First African Baptist Church, the first independent black Baptist church in the North, and the first free black church of any denomination in New England.

It has since had an uninterrupted history (through several name changes), symbolizing both the black church's strong cultural influence and African-Americans' exceptional devotion to spiritual matters.In almost any survey of religious attitudes or behavior in the US today, African-Americans stand out as the most religiously involved, the most prayerful, the most spiritually focused among America's faithful.

Beatrice Busby, a native Bostonian, was baptized at Peoples Baptist back in May 1925, and her spiritual journey covers almost half the church's history.

"One thing I remember very clearly from my childhood is [the pastor] always saying, 'Talk to that man upstairs. No matter what happens, talk to Him and trust Him,' " the lively octogenarian says in an interview. "There are times when your back is against the wall and you wonder if God cares. But then the door opens, and it opens wide. I could write a book about what He has done for me."

Children singing in the youth choir this Sunday sound as though they could tell stories of their own. "We face peer pressures and obstacles, but with God we're able to conquer them and move on," says one young boy, as he introduces their next song: "We Are More Than Conquerors."

Faith has served as a vibrant force sustaining, liberating, and shaping the black community since the days of slavery. Slaves were brought to Boston only eight years after its founding in 1630. One of the first colonies to permit slavery, Massachusetts Bay was also one of the first to abolish it - in 1780.

Many free blacks first attended predominantly white churches. But after being made to sit separately in galleries and prohibited from voting in church elections or holding committee posts, many began worshipping together in homes.

The Rev. Thomas Paul, a black pastor, founded First African Baptist Church with about 20 members in 1805. Immediately raising funds, the community built the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill by December 1806.

On that site - now the oldest standing black church building in the US - a long tradition began of the church serving as the central social institution within the African-American community.

A school was set up there to educate black children (until the government began doing so in 1855). The Meeting House became a political and social forum, a center of the abolitionist movement, and a stop on the underground railroad. William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society there in 1832. (Today it houses the Museum of Afro-American History.)

"The church has been the center of community life, a multidimensional institution dealing with all areas touching the lives of black people," says Dr. Roberts, a former church historian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. This month also marks his 25 years as pastor at Peoples Baptist.

When Boston's black population began moving in the late 19th century to the South End and Roxbury, the church followed, buying its present building in 1898 and taking its current name in 1915. Since then, it has played a prominent community role.

In the early 1970s, Roberts' predecessor, the Rev. Richard Owen, spurred construction of a 135-unit housing development in the neighborhood. For a decade, Roberts headed the city's Black Ministerial Alliance, which spiritually nurtures clergy and provides programs for the community. Under his leadership, the BMA began supporting after-school programs for children and reform in the Boston schools. Recently, it became a clearinghouse for building the capacity of local churches to participate in President Bush's Faith-Based Initiative.

As Peoples Baptist enters its third century, it is rededicating itself to strengthening its own spiritual community and to reaching beyond church walls.

"Spiritual growth - that's what I've found at Peoples Baptist Church," Mrs. Busby emphasizes.

Now, with a congregation of close to 700, the church is initiating small groups to foster relationships that help people mature together spiritually beyond regular religious services.

Still, many prize the Sunday teaching (rather than traditional preaching) which they say characterizes their pastor's style. Karla Tolbert, a mother of three, just joined the church last spring. Her kids attended first, she says, and came home to tell her "the service was great - the pastor teaches!" She has found, she adds, that this pastor and church also really care.

Among the largely middle-class congregation, many members now travel from homes in the suburbs into the inner-city sanctuary, holding onto their community heritage. Peoples Baptist recently decided to adopt two Boston schools, joining with a white suburban congregation to help supply classrooms and meet student needs.

"One school has no playground or landscaping; one needs shelves and more books in the library and enough books so children can take them home," Roberts says.

In his quiet assurance, the pastor resembles another Jamaican-born leader, Colin Powell. He is excited about his church's latest venture, spurred by the results of an earlier experiment with small groups in the "purpose- driven church" program pioneered by megachurch pastor Rick Warren.

For 40 days, the congregation got on "the same page together in the most successful spiritual campaign we've ever done," he says. And as people began sharing the results - "marriages being strengthened, finances being put back together, all kinds of miracles - it energized the congregation."

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