Williamsburg's First Baptist Church reflects on Let Freedom Ring Challenge

For members of First Baptist Church, the month of February is hard to capture in words.

Of course, numbers help. Since launching the Let Freedom Ring Challenge, inviting the nation to ring the church’s restored bell for racial healing, more than 4,000 people rang the bell throughout the 29 days of Black History Month. Online, hashtags linked to the challenge appeared more than 100,000 times on Twitter, pictures were seen by more than 7 million on Instagram.

But the month’s impact is far less tangible. And it’s far from over.

“It’s taken on a life of its own. It really has,” said Sue Wilson, First Baptist’s communications chairperson. “We simply stepped out in faith.”

Last year, the church saw an opportunity to share its story, which reaches back to 1776. Nearly 240 years later, First Baptist perseveres. It’s one of the oldest African-American congregations in the nation. The church partnered with Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to restore its long-silent bell, and to sound the bell for change.

“To me, we have done this to shine a light on the fact that all are still not free,” Wilson said. “Igniting in people the need to not only think about, but to take some action around all of these things that are affecting our country.

“To not be silent anymore.”

Visitors were young and old. They came from churches, schools, services organizations, businesses, governments, and they traveled from throughout Hampton Roads, as far north as Massachusetts, as far south as Florida and as far west as California, Wilson said.

The reasons varied as widely as the walks of life. Visitors gave voice to the bell for ancestors and for lost opportunities, for hope and healing.

Guests would walk in First Baptist’s doors and ring the bell. They’d tread through the sanctuary and visit the “history room” downstairs to view a video and displays about the church’s history.

The experience would last maybe 30 minutes, but “you could feel it making a difference in people’s lives,” said church member George Sledd.

Wilson recounted the story of a woman, blind and confined to a wheelchair, who was so overcome by ringing the bell that she broke out into song in the sanctuary. Or a woman who felt called to apologize for her family owning slaves.

The stories are endless. Visitors, strangers often shared intimate pieces of their lives.

“They felt loved. They felt safe,” Sledd said. And the love overflowing from First Baptist gave Let Freedom Ring its power.

For a church that is no stranger to writing history, February was no different. “What happened here this month is a piece of history,” Wilson said.

“Colonial Williamsburg interprets history every day — but this year, with our friends at First Baptist Church, we’ve had the rare opportunity to make history,” Mitchell Reiss, Colonial Williamsburg president and CEO, said in a press release.

Wilson said leadership teams from both organizations became family: “When you talk about unity, that’s where it started.”

With February over, and the challenge done, First Baptist stands at a crossroads, Sledd said. “How do we become good stewards of the opportunity that we’ve been given?”

“The bell will not stop ringing,” Wilson said. Let Freedom Ring will continue, and Wilson said the church is exploring what form it will take.

“For me, it’s a beginning. Not an end,” said Alvene Conyers, church secretary. “It’s a clarion call of the work that must be done, and we have taken the first steps.

“This is the beginning of what I perceive as a movement.”

For more information about First Baptist, visit fbcwilliamsburg1776.org. 

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-275-4934.

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