Marking a century of faith

Roots: A Guilford church has provided members with religious, social and political outlets.

October 31, 2003|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The Rev. John L. Wright addressed his congregation at First Baptist Church of Guilford on a recent Sunday with words of praise.

"Oh, there's a fire in this church today," he told parishioners at the service.

It is a fire that has touched more than just its members.

For more than a century, First Baptist has served the historically black community of Guilford as something more than a spiritual organization. Church members and others say it motivated them to provide social and political outlets during times when few, if any, such resources were available for African-Americans.

"The church was really the most important thing in the Guilford community then," said 86-year-old member Leola M. Dorsey.

And in keeping with humble roots, First Baptist has celebrated its 100th anniversary every Sunday this month with speakers and visitors from other churches, not a fancy banquet, said Wright, 67, who has led the flock since the 1970s.

"The church was built on the backs of sharecroppers," he said.

Early members of First Baptist worshiped in the home of one of the tenants of the first pastor, the Rev. Willis Carter. According to church histories, land off Oakland Mills Road was purchased in 1903 to build the first church. The congregation also built a cemetery, providing burial spaces when people remained segregated even after death.

Workers in Howard County's quarries made up the original population, but as that industry left, a steadfast core kept the faith.

In the 1960s, the new town of Columbia, with its planned communities and egalitarian philosophy, enveloped First Baptist. But that served only to reinforce the strength of the congregation.

"Columbia made the big difference," Wright said. "The massive change of the village concept brought more people to the county."

In 1970, the congregation constructed a church closer to Guilford Road. Members built the current church at Oakland Mills and Guilford roads in 1981, when parishioners numbered 500 to 1,000. The 1970 building is now a Christian center that houses offices and part of the church school. It is named for Dora Mack Carter, a matriarch of the church.

Today, First Baptist has more than 3,000 parishioners who come from all parts of the Baltimore-Washington region, Wright said.

Through its history, the church has been an advocate for social changes in the community, such as helping to fend off industrial development and to develop the idea for Guilford Gardens, the county's second public housing development.

"The church is the survival of any community," Wright said. "It stabilized the community, school, church and home."

But First Baptist's actions throughout its century of history have not been without protest.

In 1999, the church withdrew plans to develop a community center using a $300,000 state matching grant - a proposal that drew questions about separation of church and state.

And it has sought county approvals since 1998 to construct a 25,200-square-foot house of worship at its current location. The church's neighbors oppose the plan, however, saying the building would overwhelm the community and belongs in a more commercial area. A decision by the county hearing examiner in the expansion case is expected at any time.

To accommodate congregants, some watch services on closed-circuit television in the church basement. Dorsey arrives a little early so she can sit in the second seat on the left side of the church every Sunday.

Dorsey has worshiped at First Baptist for 75 years. She has been involved in many of its ministries, including the Missionary Society, Willing Worker Club and the Women's Ministry. She has also been a Sunday school teacher and superintendent of the Sunday school.

Wright's daughter Sheila, 36, said, "It's not just a Sunday thing. This church is a seven-day-a-week church."

First Baptist has also been "a political instrument and a social instrument," said C. Vernon Gray, a political science professor at Morgan State University and a former Howard County councilman. "It has been the spawning ground of a lot of political activity and leadership, as well."

The church often sponsored candidates forums and other events to inform members about issues and agendas. Like many other African-American churches, "the pulpit really became the vehicle for much of the political education," Gray said.

Several black political organizations got their start at First Baptist, including Alliance Toward an Active Community, said Noel Myricks of Virginia, a former Columbia resident and church member who ran for the Howard school board. "Reverend Wright enabled us to have a forum to exercise our First Amendment rights," he said.

Wright's leadership has affected First Baptist's political role. The pastor has held numerous state and local leadership positions on boards and Baptist conferences, and he has been president of the Howard County and state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Howard NAACP's offices have been based at the church since 1983.

Although it is a thriving congregation today, First Baptist's far-reaching light could be extinguished by problems far different from those experienced by its founders, Wright cautioned.

"We're probably dealing with prosperity troubles," he said.

Modern life offers more distractions, and Wright knows he competes for his congregants' attentions with cable television and other forms of recreation. "Once upon a time, African-Americans didn't take vacations," Wright said.

"We want people to take vacations," he added, but not at the expense of the church.

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