First Baptist Church celebrates "Let Freedom Ring Challenge"

Dennis Gardner helped his sister, Audrey along the cobblestone path leading to First Baptist Church. His wife, Jackie, walked in front of them, heading for the “Let Freedom Ring” celebration at the historic house of worship.

“This is a grand celebration here at the church and for the local people of Williamsburg,” Jackie Gardner said, pointing to the church founded by slaves. “These celebrations are the beginning of a dialog about race in this country. It’s an exciting time.”

Monday’s service was a celebration of the first day of Black History Month, as the church commemorated the restoration of its Freedom Bell, which was done through a partnership with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Ford Foundation in recognition of the church’s 240th anniversary.

Her husband, who has been a church member since it was located on Nassau Street in the 1950s, added, “We’re so happy to be here and witness this. We wouldn’t have missed it.”

New Williamsburg resident Sophia Wirkkala and her three home schooled children Olivia, 14, Vinnie, 10, and Nicholas, 16, saw a news report on the ceremony, and came out for it.

“I’m the biggest Harriet Tubman fan there is,” Sophia Wirkkala said. “We came out because this is an important celebration of our history as a nation.”

Wirkkala read the church’s history to her children Monday and wanted them to to see the history they now live around. The family didn’t know the church’s event was invitation only, so they ended up at Kimball Theater to watch it on the big screen.

People came from across the region to celebrate the church’s rehabbed bell and historic event.

Hampton University's choir kicked off the star-studded event, which featured the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., soul legend Dionne Warwick and iconic R&B singer Valarie Simpson. 

First Baptist Church in Williamsburg fell silent as Simpson played the first few keys on the piano she sat at in the sanctuary. “Are we having church in here this morning?” said Simpson, half of the hit duo Ashford & Simpson.

The congregation responded with throaty amens. She invited the Hampton University choir, seated behind the Rev. Jackson, to stand and sing with her impromptu.

“We don’t need no rehearsal,” Simpson said. The attendees joined hands across the aisle as she belted out her hit song “Reach out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”

The church's long history hummed through it today as the voices inside rose in song. 

Founded in 1776 by enslaved men and women, First Baptist Church is recognized as one of the oldest African-American congregations in the country.

The bell fell silent due to structural issues in the 1950s. It was restored recently.

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Mitchell Reiss, Jackson U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-Newport News, and U.S. Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook each took turns pulling on a rope in the church’s foyer, tolling the bell for the crowd outside on Scotland Street to hear.

Outside the church, Leo and Jene Davis talked about how moved they were by the ceremony. 

"This was truly a blessing. It was all God," Leo Davis said. "I'm still trembling from it."

Jene Davis called Monday's ceremony "powerful and very moving."

The couple hadn't planned on coming to the church celebration Monday, but when they drove by and saw the crowd, they stopped. The two snagged the last two available seats inside the sanctuary. 

"We were moved by this. I'm so glad we came," Leo Davis added. 

The celebration continues tonight from 7-9 p.m. at the Concert for Hope and awards gala, hosted by Danny Glover. A special award will be presented to Dr. Bernard Lafayette, a leader in the Selma Voting Rights Movement. The concert also includes performances from the legendary Dionne Warwick, Valerie Simpson, Esperanza Spalding and the Hampton University Choir.

To read more on the event and #LetFreedomRingChallenge, read Wednesday's edition of The Virginia Gazette. 

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