Bell resounds loudest for First Baptist congregation

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

It was quiet along Scotland Street Sunday morning.

Bobby Braxton, 78, stood outside First Baptist Church before the start of the Sunday service. He gazed lovingly at the brick building, the church he grew up attending.

"We call it a sanctuary in more ways than one," said Braxton, a trustee of the church.

Braxton said he sometimes sits in the sanctuary, alone.

"It's wonderful," Braxton said. "Just listening to the building, listening to the people that have gone before us."

Hundreds, likely thousands, will pass through First Baptist's sanctuary during February. The church launched the Let Freedom Ring Challenge on Feb. 1, inviting the nation to ring the church's restored bell as a call for racial healing. At a kick-off ceremony Monday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Dionne Warwick and other prominent figures sounded the bell.

But the bell resounds loudest in the hearts of First Baptist members, a congregation of around 300. At an emotional Sunday service Jan. 31, the congregation was first to sound a bell silent since the days of segregation.

"I felt a deepness in my heart," said Jean Gerst Stewart, 78. "I felt overwhelmed."

"The feeling and the knowing that this is our bell, and this is our home," said Stewart, who grew up attending the church's location on Nassau Street, established in 1856, before it moved to Scotland Street in 1956.

Around 20 of the "Nassau Street Children" rang the bell Sunday, including Braxton and Alma Johnson, 82, who has been part of the church since age 3.

"I go back seven generations," said Braxton, who grew up in the Braxton Court neighborhood a stone's throw away. "I'm ringing for all of them."

The connection to history, and struggle, reaches back to 1776, when First Baptist Church formed among a group of slaves and free blacks worshipping secretly under a thatched arbor at Green Spring Plantation. The church remains one of the oldest African-American congregations in the country.

The bell fell silent due to structural issues in the 1950s, but was recently restored for the church's 240th anniversary in partnership with Colonial Williamsburg.

"It's just a reminder of the price that so many people paid for me to enjoy this freedom," said member John A. Griffith. "Here we are, today, celebrating 240 years."

Today, as it was 240 years ago, the church is a group knit together in faith.

"We pray, and we come together, and our hearts are fulfilled all the time," Stewart said.

"We just have a great love for all humanity," she said. "That is the spirit that we have."

And as member after member stepped up to the rope to sound the bell, many rang with hope in their hearts for the future.

"Much over time has been accomplished, but our country still has a long way to go," said the Rev. Ricardo Brown of Fifth Baptist Church in Richmond, as he delivered Sunday's sermon.

"Let that clapper on the inside of our hearts also ring, that we might be of light," said the Rev. Reginald Davis, pastor of First Baptist, during the benediction that closed Sunday's service.

Charlie Bell Jr. rang the bell for his mother, Mary Tyner, the first African-American woman to seek office in Americus, Ga. Bell remembers attending segregated schools and segregated movie theaters.

"That's been a part of me, to see that kind of struggle," Bell said.

He let out a joyous whoop after sounding the bell, which he also rang for himself. "It's a call for me to do better," said Bell, a teacher. "I have to make an impact where I am."

Trustee Al Montgomery, a member since 1981, sees the church as a symbol of togetherness.

For a church to last 240 years, "something was done right," he said. "Shows that people can work together, people can live together, and people can worship together."

The bell's chime left many members at a loss for words, including Montgomery.

"I don't think the moment has really hit any of us yet," he said.

But years from now, the sanctuary's walls will whisper about this moment, and the congregation that made it happen.

Sign up to ring the bell at letfreedomringchallenge.org. Slots are available each hour from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday to Friday, and 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday, from Feb. 1 to 29.

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

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette
43°