A pilgrimage has been defined as a “journey, often into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about their self, others, nature or a higher good through the experience.”
What began as a way to get some different scenery for Sunday morning worship turned into lessons about building use, community, public witness, identity, courage and so much more.
My husband and co-pastor, John, and I never could have anticipated the lessons we would learn in Boston or Providence that we could bring back to Savannah, Georgia, to implement, but for each one we are grateful to the congregation who allowed us to go and to the God who went with us.
Each of the churches we visited has re-imagined how they use their space. Some have become landlords. Some have sold their buildings and become renters.
What became absolutely clear is that the same amount of creativity that we bring to the worship moment on Sundays must be applied even to the building.
First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, for example, chose to sell their building in 2015.
One of the remaining members of their dwindling congregation led them in a reflection on the first nine members of this 320-year-old congregation saying, “We talked about the difference between the church’s first nine and us ‘last nine.’ What were the first nine looking at? The future. Our problem is we kept looking back.”
Then she went on saying, “Our looking backward all the time and our need to preserve this tradition is part of the reason we’re in the shape we’re in.”
In learning about the First Baptist of Philadelphia congregation, it became apparent that history must inform our identity, but we cannot let it consume our identity.
In addition to the invaluable lessons about building use, we learned about how to be Baptists in a different way. We learned about how to be Baptists true to the greatest hopes of our great American Baptist forefather, Roger Williams.
There in Providence, on the grounds of the First Baptist Church in America, our little family sat enjoying our take-out dinners.
We all unintentionally ordered a different type of food: a burger for one, a burrito for another and a Thai chicken dish. There, we laughed that this is exactly what Roger Williams would have wanted: a place for diverse people to gather, free from religious coercion, to create community.
Jamie Washam, pastor of the First Baptist Church in America, reminded us that Williams was given shelter and hospitality by the Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes. It is for this reason that the congregation worships in a space called “The Meetinghouse.”
Rather than being identified as a sanctuary, the Meetinghouse was intended to be a place for the community to gather, not just the church. Brown University hosts its graduation there.
The city of Providence hosts multiple events there, including a festival in honor of H.P. Lovecraft. In addition to this being a diligent use of space, it served as a reminder to us that the church is to be a resource for the community, rather than a refuge from it.
Our visit to Old Cambridge Baptist Church was a gift to us because we were able to reunite with our old friend, Cody Sanders, pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist.
Situated right in the heart of Harvard Square, Old Cambridge Baptist has a history of using its collective voice to call people to a higher standard of ethical and theological reflection.
Going into the trip, we knew very little about Old Cambridge Baptist. We only knew that our friend, Cody, was doing an incredible job balancing the role of prophet and pastor in a very public pulpit.
With a doctorate in pastoral theology, Cody is an incredible theologian who embodies the type of “less anxious” presence every pastor aims to exhibit. Yet, he has an edge to him that challenges the status quo. He finds ways to call out injustice in ways that are direct but disarming.
Knowing this, we sought to learn from him about how his congregation lives as a public witness in Cambridge. But we learned so much more, including the congregation’s great history of being a leader in the Baptist world for the sake of justice, equality and compassion.
We learned about pastors who made it a priority for the congregation to make room for each and every person at the table. Though they may not have been fully appreciated at the time, with years of practice, the congregation has become known as the model for churches that seek to live out the command to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”
What a joy this journey was. Our reflections on this pilgrimage will sustain us for years to come as we walk with our historic congregation toward a more vibrant future that holds our space with open hands.
As progressive Baptists, we have a real opportunity ahead to continue cultivating community within our congregation and beyond so that we are deeply woven into the fabric of our city’s culture. Though none of these congregations are large by today’s standards, they are robust.
We must be encouraged that it is only through faithfulness to the calling to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God that we can build a robust congregation that does not need to be a booming mega-church, but can make a difference in our world as we are.
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series. Part one is available here.