Q&A with the Rev. Jeffrey Haggray, new senior pastor of First Baptist Church

By Hamil R. Harris
Saturday, March 6, 2010

Church leaders across the area gathered at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., last week for the installation of the Rev. Jeffrey Haggray as its new senior pastor. Haggray is the first African American to lead the 208-year-old church. When the church was established in 1802, Thomas Jefferson was president and the population of the District was just a few hundred people. The church has occupied five buildings, including one at the site of what is now Ford's Theatre. First Baptist, which has been at its current location at 1328 16th St. NW since 1890, was the place of worship for former presidents Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter. Haggray earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia, a master of divinity from Yale Divinity School and a doctor of ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary.

Want more?: See a video of the interview here .

What is the significance of you being named the first African American pastor of the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington D.C.?

It is very meaningful that the First Baptist Church, with its distinguished 208-year history, chose me, an African American, as their senior pastor while still a majority white congregation. The church's action is consistent with the biblical vision of beloved community, wherein there is no distinction or discrimination due to race, national origin or gender. While First Baptist has had African American members for many years, the church has nonetheless evolved in its practice of the faith and in its adherence to the American Dream, which envisions equality for all people, wherein the content of character supersedes skin color.

Do you see your selection as part of a larger effort of racial reconciliation taking place in many predominantly white churches today?

Absolutely! First Baptist is both conscious of and committed to racial reconciliation. The historic phrase which says that, "Sunday morning at 11 o'clock is the most segregated hour in America," is widely known. Less known is that churches such as First Baptist have been working for many years to overcome the racial divide in our culture, which was mirrored in our houses of worship. Churches have a high calling to be houses of prayer for all people, regardless of their identity. I know no better way to communicate that message than to embrace and affirm racial diversity in our leadership.

What are your plans for First Baptist in terms of growth and moving forward?

First Baptist, like many historic congregations in the District of Columbia, experienced a sharp decline in its worship attendance since the 1970s. That decline was especially pronounced here, given the fact that many people flocked to First Baptist to sit in on President Carter's Sunday School classes. Going forward, First Baptist's growth cannot be dependent on the presence of a single high-profile individual, whether pastor or even the president, but on the presence of numerous people from all walks of life, nationalities, and ethnicities and social classes. Our church doors are already open seven days a week with a vibrant child development center, mission projects, religious services, and support groups for persons living with various challenges and addictions. We will add out-of-school-time programs for children and youth and affinity groups for persons seeking to broaden their relationships and deepen their faith. . . . In time, we will add diverse worship services to our schedule that meet a wide range of needs and will make more effective use of technology to stay connected with the faithful wherever they are.

Washington is a city that is often polarized in terms of faith. Some pastors embrace all couples regardless of sexual orientation, while groups such as the D.C. Baptist Ministers Conference condemn same-sex marriage. What is your view on this?

The church of Christ should be a community wherein all people are welcome as worshipers and disciples of Christ, whatever their sexual identity happens to be. We must find ways to protect both religious liberty and marriage equality without contributing to the polarization you speak about.

What is your vision for the city in terms of social justice and ministering to the least of these?

Washington, D.C., has an almost mystical power that calls people from every corner of our nation and from across the globe to become part of this great city and to give their best service on behalf of our nation and the global community. As the nation's capital, our city has a vocation to promote social justice and equality of access to necessary resources for all people everywhere. It is a glaring contradiction, with so much talent and so many resources gathered in this relatively small geopolitical center, to ever witness one ounce of injustice or disservice at our doorsteps.

Why did you become a minister, and how hard is it balancing faith and family?

I became a minister because I love God, and I love people; and I believe the two are at their best when they get along with each other. Thus, I see myself as a kind of relationship counselor between God and people. I balance faith and family by living what I teach and preach about at home first and then, secondarily, at church.

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