Written by Rich Tafel
Every February, Black History Month offers Americans a time to reflect on their neglected history. Churches should use this month to reflect on our history when it comes to our relationship to Washington, D.C.’s African American community.
Last year, for Black History Month, our Church of the Holy City on 16th Street in Dupont Circle decided to examine our past in dealing with racism as we seek to become a more inclusive place to serve. The results were fascinating.
Our church was inspired by the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Christian mystic, and his spiritual revelation that the “African race” is closest to God with a unique spiritual connection referring to those of Africans as having celestial genius. In our research, we learned those teachings impacted and led a few of our early members to become early abolitionists.
First, we discovered an early member of our church, Lord Fairfax, once the largest landholder in Virginia, freed his slaves in 1798 based on Church teachings. This story came to full circle recently when former Virginia Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax publicly shared that he was an ancestor of those freed slaves in a Washington Post article.
Digging deeper, we learned that a church member and abolitionist, Colonel Reuben Mussey, led the effort to enlist Black soldiers in the Union forces during the Civil War. In 1864, he was appointed colonel of the 100th U.S. Colored Infantry. Upon returning to D.C. after the war, he maintained strong connections with D.C.’s Black community. Under his leadership, the 16th Street church helped launch a mission church at 10th and V Street N.W. called the “First Colored Society of New Jerusalem.” The building stands to this day and is owned by the D.C. government. Our research found that Church of the Holy City funded Washington’s first African American pre-school program attracting social luminaries to visit and model new programs around the nation.
The Church was later sold to a Pentecostal Church, and its active outreach to D.C.’s Black community seemed sporadic in the following decades.
The riots of 1968 led many of the predominantly White congregation to flee to neighboring suburbs. As crime increased, attendance dropped, and the building decayed. Despite this remarkable history, the Church never became known or publicly outspoken for civil rights.
These lessons, some good and some bad, helped us pledge going forward to become a more engaged and welcoming church when it comes to race. For humans to grow spiritually, they need to become self-aware. Only when we see the evil in our lives can it be addressed. Yet, we will spend much of our lives avoiding what’s within us to point out the sin we see in others and the world.
Churches are no different. If churches want to evolve spiritually, they, too, need to come to terms with their past to address the present and grow toward a less racist future.
Our congregation has grown very slowly as we’ve tried to meet the community’s needs. Today, our still small church has a majority African American leadership staff.
Our building manager, Shalonda Ingram, who runs Born Brown: All Rights Reserved, is a national leader in diversity training and a descendent of the great American, Dred Scott. Her presence and leadership have made the church much more accessible to African American recording groups and events.
It’s not unusual for event attendees who are Black visitors to tell us, “I’ve walked past this church for years but never felt invited in.” As our group seeks to become an inclusive place for all people on a spiritual journey, we’ve made a special outreach to the Black community.
Every church has a history of excellent and flawed efforts regarding racism. We’ve been inspired by the early leaders by delving into ours, and we seek now to live into their legacy. We are also aware of the years of abandonment and silence. Only by confronting this past can we begin to live into the present as a radically inclusive church of all people that is willing to host the tough conversation on the impact of the sin of racism.
We encourage all churches to use Black History Month as their opportunity to dig deeper to see what can be celebrated and what must be confessed. Only when we truly understand this past can we engage in our present to build a more inclusive future.
Read the full issue of the April 2022 Messenger
Meet Rich Tafel
Rev. Rich Tafel is deeply involved in the intersection of faith and the public square. He has been the pastor of the Church of the Holy City in Washington, D.C. for the past six years.