Baptist Routes Pilgrimage – Day 5: Providence, Rhode Island
Just at the bottom of College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits First Baptist Church in America, the oldest continuously occupied wooden house of worship in our country. The simple, yet mystifying white meetinghouse is a staple in the Providence community. The beautifully manicured grounds are regularly occupied with students from the local universities studying, eating, and simply enjoying the day together.
Inside, the space was intentionally designed as a gathering space for the community to live into its founder, Roger Williams’, vision of religious liberty as hospitality. The clear windows have their shutters opened wide so that the world can see inside and the gathered congregation can see out. Just one image of Christ is in the worship space and it is only uncovered on the very special occasion of a baptism. No iconography adorns the space so that diverse people can use the space without impinging upon their conscience. The pastor, the Reverend Jamie Washam, told a story of Brown students who often express concerns prior to events held within the meetinghouse, for fear of being in a typical baptist church. She often reassures them that this meetinghouse is, in the words of their founder, “a place for persons distressed of conscience.”
“A place for persons distressed of conscience”
As Baptist clergy, it was thrilling to get to know Rev. Washam and to climb into the historic pulpit to record our homilies for our own Founders’ Day worship service. Can you imagine a better place to celebrate Founders’ Day? As we climbed the stairs into the raised pulpit and looked out over the empty booths and intentionally designed space, the weight of history filled our hearts and minds. There was a mysterious Spirit in that place. John, a lifelong Baptist, was able to piece the puzzle of his dreams together in standing in such a profound place. Katie, who chose to be Baptist in part because of Roger Williams’ emphasis on religious liberty, experienced a sense of vocational fulfillment as a woman pastor standing in the place that represented the highest ideals of being Baptist.
In our conversation with Rev. Washam, we talked about the joys and struggles of pastoring historic congregations. She told stories of famous Baptists, both of our shared theological bent and of the more fundamentalist background, worshiping in this meetinghouse. Although many who have passed through the doors of that space hold differing beliefs, even those that would exclude the woman called Pastor, each and every person who walks through the doors is welcomed in honor of the welcome Roger Williams received from the Narraganset and Wampanoag tribes.
In the meetinghouse, we were home. Carrying the stories of FBC Savannah, we gave thanks for the way in which Roger Williams’ story serves as the foundation for who we are thousands of miles away. Standing in the beloved home of Baptists, we rejoiced for the people who have stood for our congregation to continue to live the radical welcome of Roger Williams. And finally we prayed that we would continue to allow his legacy and the witness of FBC in America to shape us into the people we need to be for our community.