PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Churchgoers would agree that it’s the people who truly make up a parish. But at the Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence, the building itself also plays a role in telling the story of Black history in Rhode Island.
On a snowy Sunday morning in the city’s College Hill neighborhood, one of the country’s oldest Black congregations gathered in person for the first time in a long while.
“We’ve engendered a community and culture where people know they’re somebody,” Pastor Justin Lester told 12 News.
Despite the inclement weather, some parishioners showed up while others streamed the Mass online.
“It’s the refuge. You feel safe. You’re comfortable. God’s word is going forth, you’re seen, you’re loved, and you’re heard,” Lester said. “I think that’s where God gains glory. From that, we’ve seen all six generations in worship, from a couple of 90-year-olds to some newborns.”
Even before being assigned its pastor, Lester knew the church had a history dating back more than 200 years. In 1820, when freed slaves and African people in Providence weren’t satisfied with sitting on the balcony at the predominantly white Baptist church down the hill, they decided to build their own.
“Originally founded as the African Union Meeting House about two blocks from here on Meeting Street, and it was burned down years after by some individuals who we believe didn’t agree with slaves being free here in Rhode Island,” Lester explained.
But they rebuilt at the Congdon Street location where the church now stands.
“This is an hour and a half of knowing you’re somebody,” Lester added. “Connecting with other somebodies and leaving out of here knowing that I know there’s a safe environment for that, and then hopefully I can take that to my workplace, to my home where I can encourage others to know they’re seen, they’re loved.”
He said modernizing Jesus’s world is what keeps his parish going strong. The juxtaposition of technology and tradition can be seen throughout the church, from QR codes by family plaques so people can learn more online to new monitors next to stained glass windows so churchgoers can participate in singing traditional hymns.