At D.C.’s First Baptist Church, a dismal parting with its first black pastor

There had been three years of tension, heated meetings and secret letters of complaint from congregants with questions: Why was their new pastor making changes to their church? Why did he hire a new musician? Could he, please, discourage new members from clapping during services?

Conflict was not new at First Baptist Church, a storied, 210-year-old Dupont Circle congregation that has churned through nine pastors in the past four decades. There was even a stir in the 1970s over the politics and policies of a Sunday school teacher named Jimmy Carter.

But members say the drama that ended a few weeks ago with a “separation agreement” between First Baptist — a prominent, mostly white church — and its first black pastor was particularly troubling.

The agreement, which included a severance payment of $315,000, concluded the tenure of the Rev. Jeffrey Haggray, whose hiring had been viewed by many as a hopeful sign in a city grappling with shifting demographics, political polarization and the departure of many churches for the suburbs.

Baptists, along with other mainstream American denominations, still struggle with the nation’s legacy of racism and segregation, and the appointment of a black pastor to head a historically white congregation was a rare occurrence.


The Rev. Jeffrey Haggray (Provided by First Baptist Church)

Now, the bitter ending has made some urban pastors uneasy. In the turmoil at First Baptist, they recognize familiar themes of race, power and angst over how to reverse declining membership at U.S. houses of worship.

“What happens when you call a leader and that leader fosters diversity and then the congregation says, ‘Whoa, we don’t want to go’?” said Ricky Creech, head of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, a racially diverse group of area Baptist churches, and a longtime church consultant. “You can have diversity on a bus but not all be going to the same location.”

First Baptist chose Haggray in November 2009to lead the church, in part, out of a desire to broaden and further diversify its membership. The congregation — which is mostly white but has a significant number of people of other races — had declined sharply. What had been a packed sanctuary during the mid-1950s was drawing a couple of hundred worshipers when Haggray took over.

Haggray was known as a racial trailblazer after serving as the first black executive director of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, a full-time job he held for a decade. He had a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School and a doctorate of ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary. And he had served as pastor at Mount Gilead Baptist Church and Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, both in the District.

The racial factor

Both sides say cultural tensions arose after Haggray arrived. But there is disagreement about the extent to which racial differences contributed, if at all, to the pastor’s resignation.

Critics say that Haggray hadn’t sought enough input before hiring staff members, including a Web specialist and a musician, that his sermons were dull and that he had yelled and hit a table once during a meeting. Supporters say he was unfairly opposed from the start. They say older members of the church were uncomfortable with changes that Haggray introduced, including welcoming more nonwhite and openly gay members and adding more expressive music and worship styles to what had been a relatively formal service.

Haggray believes that race was a factor in his exit.

“Yes, I think negative attitudes about race guided some of the actions of the members who took it upon themselves to ask me to leave,” he said in an interview this week. “They were losing control of their church. They looked up one day and saw all of these African American leaders in key positions.”

First Baptist clerk Christi Harlan countered: “Race played no part in Rev. Haggray’s departure. I joined First Baptist 20 years ago because of the diversity of its membership and leadership.” Harlan, who is white, declined to comment on why Haggray left, saying it was a private personnel matter.

Others who find fault with Haggray, most of whom agreed to talk on the condition that their names not be used, said he reacted defensively to criticism.

Members of the church “wrote [letters of complaint] about every week, expressing concern . . . that he should focus more on ministry and not on hiring and money,” one longtime African American member said. “When he got these letters, he became very angry. He began to attack the individuals who wrote these letters.”

Members’ complaints

Some members complained about people clapping or shouting praise words during worship, and they disliked altar calls, an emotive practice common in evangelical churches that involves people going to the front of the sanctuary to express their faith.

“They wanted to maintain a quiet church. There were some who were afraid that the church was becoming too black under Rev. Haggray,” said Dewey Reeves, leader of the church deacons. Reeves is among a handful of black members who have joined and taken leadership positions at the church since Haggray’s arrival. “It is very discouraging. Here we are in 2013, and we want to run a church like a country club.”

Haggray engineered a development deal — turning a parking lot into an apartment building — that is supposed to bring First Baptist $1 million a year for decades. Some Haggray supporters said people were anxious about new members making decisions on how the money would be spent.

Some longtime members left, but new members joined the congregation, including Jim Wallis, a well-known evangelical author and activist, and Burns Strider, a faith adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential campaign.

In transient Washington, members came and went, including many who were on the committee that picked Haggray. But by the time Haggray’s resignation was announced March 24, the tensions had taken a toll on attendance. Wallis, who founded the community organizing group Sojourners, said he and his wife, who was a deacon, joined First Baptist to hear Haggray. Now, he said, they have decided to leave.

“Jeff Haggray preached the Gospel vision of a beloved community that welcomed the changing demographics of Washington, D.C.,” Wallis said. “He wasn’t just trying to create a black church but a diverse community reflecting our city. But First Baptist would no longer be a majority-white church, and some of the old guard still wanted it that way.”

Jim Somerville, a Richmond minister and a former First Baptist pastor, said the controversy is typical of what he hears from pastors everywhere.

“Jeff Haggray is the latest victim of the crushing anxiety in chur­ches,” Somerville said. “If you asked all the big downtown churches, they’d say the same thing. They miss the time when everyone was coming to church, and they just want to go back there.”

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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