First African American Church in South Orange, NJ Celebrates Diversity, and 120 Years of Worship and Service
South Orange, NJ ~ November 2015: “It’s our ability to respond to the needs of the community and being increasingly more inclusive in our worship,” proudly stated Reverend Terry Richardson, when asked what has been the most significant accomplishment of the First Baptist Church of South Orange.
That is very momentous indeed as the church membership has grown from 75 people, who were predominantly senior citizens, to an average of 300 people on any given Sunday. Additionally, the highest attendance on record was over 500 members. These figures have steadily increased since 1997 and during Rev. Richardson’s 18-year tenure as senior pastor.
As a matter of fact, the church started to grow its diversity in the early 2000’s because the message changed. For years, the church experienced several changes in leadership and pastors did not stay for long enough periods of time to engage the community. However, with Terry Richardson’s arrival, a new vision and mission emerged, drawing people in and creating a place open to their ideas and needs.
How did he do this? Rev. Richardson simply explained, “We conducted a three year study surveying the community, particularly residents, board of trustees, business owners, mom & pop stores, and our own church members. From there we had a basis for what the needs were.” Through this process, he was able to further engage the community and assess who to address to resolve problems or partner with to develop programs and services.
The survey method was successful and people have been drawn to the church and its message of community inclusion and impact. These methods proved so successful, that the original building is unable to accommodate the membership and there is now a tremendous need to expand its space to serve more people.
The 120th Anniversary Celebration was created as a part of a capital campaign to raise funds to expand their building. The celebration, scheduled for November 28th at the Renaissance Hotel in Elizabeth, will feature a performance by Gospel and R&B songstress Cece Winans. “We are so excited to have her join us as we celebrate such a significant turning point in our church history. And it is sure to be a lot of fun,” said Rev. Richardson. As he continues to speak, one cannot help but notice an air of humbleness as he recounts his years with First Baptist Church.
Notably, this church is the first African-American church in South Orange, but one whose cultural or racial lineage has never been a barrier. As the community changed, so did the congregation. Today, it remains primarily African-American, but many members are of European, Hispanic, and Caribbean decent. Richardson goes on to explain the diversity in membership. “I would say our primary growth in membership has been first-generation people from Caribbean countries who immigrated to this area. But we also have widely diverse groups from New York, the greater Essex County community and northern New Jersey.”
Rev. Richardson was influenced by renowned civil rights activist Leon Sullivan, who served as the church’s pastor in the mid to late 1940’s. Sullivan was most prominently known as the American activist who went to South Africa to fight against and abolish apartheid. Sullivan was the first African-American board member of General Motors (GM) and encouraged GM and other corporations to use their influence to end apartheid. Sullivan called for a multi-national boycott asking these corporations to help put an end to apartheid. Companies from around the world pulled their businesses out of South Africa, devastating the economy and putting an end to this horrid system.
“His work here in the United States and South Africa always focused on the development and spiritual growth of people. Sullivan invited me to visit South Africa to learn how communities and churches work together to improve lives. That was a pivotal point for me as a pastor here in South Orange. I came back and knew what work needed to be done,” asserted Rev. Richardson.
To the First Baptist Church, outreach means involving people in their own destinies, solving problems together and collectively creating solutions to meet the community’s needs. For example, the number of ministries at First Baptist Church grew from a handful to over ten. Each ministry focuses on providing specific services to various groups, for example, the Men’s Ministry, Women’s Ministry, Youth Ministry, and the Circle of Faith Ministry, to name a few. For instance, the Circle of Faith Ministry includes Seton Hall students and provides Watch Care programs – a partnership with their home based church in caring and communicating based on the needs of the students.
First Baptist Church also encompasses an additional four choirs which have enriched the culture of the church via new and different genres of music, focusing on youth and college students. Once again, meeting the needs of its community influenced the decision to expand its choirs. Rev. Richardson explains, “Out of these new ministries, people became more engaged and the enthusiasm to get involved became contagious. Lots of good music and talent emerged from our choirs.”
After attending conferences and learning how to grow and walk with God, the Dynamic Marriage Ministry was born. This ministry positively impacts the community by working to improve marriages and relationships for members of the church. The Dynamic Marriage Ministry works with married couples to improve and enhance their experience in marriage. This ministry provides workshop-based training, opportunities for recreational activities, and one-on-one counseling to assist those going through resilient times. In addition, this program is brought to other local churches, upon request, as a result of working with a few members who spread the word about its success in enhancing their marriages and relationships.
The churches’ outreach activities include Holocaust awareness celebrations in partnership with local synagogues and the church’s relationship with the Jewish community, feeding programs for local food bank and families in need, and having relationships with schools and law enforcement agencies –all of which have reached statewide recognition.
A perfect example of one of the outreach programs is “Coffee with a Cop” which addresses violence against African American males by encouraging conversations around those issues and bringing in government officials and police officers to meet with community members. The beneficial aspect of this program is its pre-emptive approach. The church encourages regular discussions with law enforcement before conflicts occur and results in the ability to have direct lines of open communication with key influencers and decisions makers.
Additionally, the church has been a leader in disaster relief. “Our church was one of the first establishments to respond to the community during Hurricane Sandy. We offered mobile phone charging stations and shelter for families who did not have power,” states Rev. Richardson.
Furthermore, the church’s Board decided to allocate 10% of its yearly budget to work with partner organizations that are like-minded. This allows the church to not only partner with community groups, but this revenue contributes to programs and services that emerge from these discussions. “That is a very significant aspect of how we work. After all, it takes money to do things, and working to impact other people’s lives sometimes requires volunteering and financial resources,” exclaims Richardson.
“We want to be movers and shakers in the community, and we want to be in a position to influence decisions and processes that affect our community, in a positive way,” says Richardson when reflecting on his vision for the church.
This can certainly be achieved with the support of other influential residents, such as Dorothy Ponds and Lottie Adams. Ms. Ponds is one of the oldest members of the church and, as a young adult and under the tutelage of Dr. Leon Sullivan, she initiated the Fair Housing Act in South Orange. She did this by challenging the establishments and forcing realtors and the city government to open the door for more African-Americans to purchase homes in South Orange, New Jersey. Currently in her late 90’s, Ms. Ponds is still a member and continues to be of service to the church. In 1942, Lottie Adams was only one of two Blacks to enroll in the 42 student adult psychology course at Weequahic High school. At that time Eleanor Roosevelt took on the task of campaigning for racial equality as a result of the newly formed United Nations and what its stood for. When she learned of Lottie attending the predominantly white high school, she came to visit to observe the classroom and show support for its openness to accept black students.
In addition to these influential members of the congregation, we also have to recognize the hard work of Alice Lewis, who took on the feat of preserving 120 years of history for the church. Ms. Lewis collected and preserved many artifacts, documents and photos regarding the church. In addition, Joe Clark, church member and former member of Lean On Me, played a large role in South Orange and established the Edgar Commerce Library.
When asked about his vision for the future for the church, Rev. Richardson states “As members of the Church, we are called to go and compel others to know the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus. Our goal is to continue the Great Commission of Christ and in doing so, remain relevant in a 21st Century World. Our strategic plans include positioning our ministry to have an even greater impact by investing in our members and building a larger facility to accommodate the vision of salvation, transformation, and empowerment of lives. We envision creating entrepreneurs, influencing stronger marriages, encouraging youth to attend and graduate college with math and science degrees, and promoting wealth-builders. A saved life becomes a transformed life. A transformed life results in transformed families and communities. Our goal is not to maintain. On the contrary, our goal is to build upon the accomplishments of the shoulders we stand on. Our biggest accomplishment will not be the number of schools we’ve built, or the number of wells we’ve dug. Our biggest accomplishment will be the number of lives saved, touched, empowered and transformed by our obedience in sharing and demonstrating the saving grace of God in Christ. We look forward remaining spiritually and socially relevant in our impact for Christ.”