Historic church and black pastor part ways

High hopes for a historically white Baptist church’s calling its first African-American pastor unraveled after three years.

By Bob Allen

Jeffrey Haggray resigned April 8 as pastor of the 210-year-old First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., three years after his election as the congregation’s first African-American pastor was hailed as a meaningful step toward racial reconciliation.

Jeff HaggrayThe church newsletter announced a called business meeting April 7 to vote on a severance package for Haggray, former executive director of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention elected as First Baptist’s 18th pastor in October 2009. Haggray announced his “intention to vacate” the pulpit March 24.

Church leaders across the D.C. area gathered for Haggray’s installation service in 2010. Much was made of the predominantly white church, established when Thomas Jefferson was president and the place of worship for former presidents Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter, selecting a black leader.

In a March 5, 2010, Washington Post story, Haggray called it “very meaningful” and consistent with Martin Luther King’s philosophy of the “beloved community,” a vision for society free of the evils of poverty, racism and militarism.

A new 1,000-word Washington Post story May 1, however, portrayed Haggray and the tradition-steeped congregation as a mismatch almost from the start. Criticism arose over his administration, preaching and introduction of a more upbeat and exuberant worship style.

The sides disagreed over how much those cultural differences had to do with race, but Haggray speculated that white members felt they were losing control of their church to non-white members moving into leadership roles.

Prior to becoming pastor at First Baptist, Haggray served eight years as head of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, an organization of approximately 150 member congregations triply aligned with the American Baptist Churches USA, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.

He was credited with helping the convention regain its financial footing after the SBC's North American Mission Board ceased funding that had provided about a third of the DCBC annual budget in 2002. SBC officials justified the defunding by raising objections to DCBC involvement with interfaith-dialogue efforts that SBC leaders said compromised fundamentals of the faith, as well as other objections to the DCBC cooperating with more liberal Baptist groups.

The SBC Executive Committee is currently considering altering its relationship with the D.C. convention by pooling the District’s churches into a region that includes Maryland and Delaware because the relatively few congregations that support the SBC are currently overrepresented in slots on denominational governing boards allotted by geography.

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