By Bob Allen
After vandals stole its ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign, First Baptist Church of Jamaica Plain, Mass., now has two.
While a crowd of about 100 gathered Nov. 1 for a reinstallation ceremony covered by the Boston Globe, an 11-year-old boy spotted a piece of paper in a hedge that turned out to be the original “Black Lives Matter” banner thought to be gone for good.
A new banner, which includes the explanation “Of course all lives matter … however, given the continuing injustice and violence in our society that is disproportionately faced by people of color we must proclaim Black Lives Matter,” hangs about 30 feet off the ground.
“We wanted to make it harder for people to reach,” joked Pastor Ashlee Wiest-Laird, a native of Louisville, Ky., and a 1991 graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The historic congregation with affiliations including American Baptist Churches USA and the Alliance of Baptists was active early in the Black Lives Matter grassroots movement across America in response to a number of deaths of unarmed African-American men at the hands of police.
Osagyefo Sekou, the congregation’s pastor for formation and justice, moved to St. Louis in May to work as a community organizer for the Fellowship of Reconciliation after the 2014 shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Over the summer First Baptist Church of Jamaica Plain placed a Black Lives Matter sign on church property after the killing of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
“Our goal was and is to stand in solidarity with those who are striving to bring an end to the systemic racism that exists in this country,” explained an article in the church newsletter. “It is because we believe that all lives matter that we have to say specifically black lives matter. All too often in the history of our nation, black lives have not counted for anything.”
In September the sign was ripped off and shoved into a trash can by vandals. It was rescued and replaced, and then in early October it was stolen. The church leadership determined to have a reinstallation service not only for the congregation but the entire community.
“While we know that there are many who misunderstand the purpose of the banner, we believe it is urgent that we speak up when people’s lives are at stake,” the newsletter article said. “We hope that the sign will encourage real dialogue and change in our community. As people of faith the only way we can follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves is to work for a world of justice and equality.”
Founded in 1842, First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain early on gave support to Northern Baptists who stood against the pro-slavery position of their southern counterparts, a controversy that led to schism and formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.
“In 1842 this church sent a letter to the Baptist Mission Society saying slavery was unacceptable,” Wiest-Laird said in comments quoted by the Boston Globe, “because black lives mattered then and black lives matter now.”
In 2005 the congregation lost its Civil War-era house of worship to fire, along with the historic 1859 E. & G.G. Hook organ, which had already survived two previous fires. Rebuilding began in 2008, and the congregation moved into phase one of reconstruction in January 2010.
Church members don’t know if the stolen sign was there in the hedge near the side of the church all along or if whoever made off with it in the first place returned it to the scene of the crime.
“Individual bigotry and structural racism has to end,” the battered original reads. “We all have too much to lose and so much to gain.”
“Do we want to challenge other evils, such as poverty, sexism, war, homophobia, as well?” the message continues. “Absolutely. While one of us is chained, none of us are free. Let us reason and work together to be the change.”