First Baptist Church congregation sounds restored bell

hbridges@vagazette.com
First Baptist Church members are first to sound the restored bell

The restored bell of First Baptist Church resounded through Scotland Street on Sunday, as congregation members sounded the bell for the first time since the days of segregation.

Though the Let Freedom Ring Challenge officially kicks off tomorrow, Feb. 1, drawing people from around the community and the country to ring the bell throughout February, First Baptist members were first to ring the bell at an emotional Sunday service on Jan. 31.

For many, it was a connection to history.

"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."

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, but it was recently restored for the church's 240th anniversary in partnership with Colonial Williamsburg.

Among those first to ring the bell on Sunday were the "Nassau Street Children," current members who grew up attending the church's location on Nassau Street, before it moved to its present site on Scotland Street in 1956.

Jean Gerst Stewart, 78, was one of those children. While ringing the bell, "I felt a deepness in my heart," she said. "I felt overwhelmed."

"The feeling and the knowing that this is our bell, and this is our home," Stewart said.

"I go back seven generations," said trustee Bobby Braxton, who grew up in the Braxton Court neighborhood near the church's current location. "I'm ringing for all of them."

As member after member stepped up to the rope to sound the bell, many also 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.

"We have much work to do," the Rev. Reginald Davis, pastor of First Baptist, said following the service. "Yet, together, we can deliver a new America to the generations to come."

First Baptist has partnered with Colonial Williamsburg to launch the Let Freedom Ring Challenge, encouraging the community to ring the bell every day of February as a call to racial healing. 

To join First Baptist Church in this endeavor, 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.

The challenge kicks off tomorrow with a special "Let Freedom Ring: A Call to Heal a Nation" ceremony, including guests the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Rhea McCauley (representing Rosa Parks' family) and direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

The public is invited to view a free live feed of the ceremony from 10-11:30 a.m. at Kimball Theatre in Merchants Square.

Look to Wednesday’s issue of the Gazette for full coverage of the start of the Let Freedom Ring Challenge.

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