In the early 1900’s we were the church home for dozens of children whose parents had left them in the care of employees of the “Fannie Doane Home for Children of Baptist Missionaries Serving Abroad.” Some of these families were separated for as many as five years, parents able to communicate with their children only by infrequent letters from places like Burma, China and India. The children walked several blocks in single file each week to attend our Sunday School classes. The Sir Galahad window in our church office is dedicated to a teenage boy from the Fannie Doane Home who died playing football for Granville High School.
Ordination has been an exciting component of our ministry. In 1978 we ordained the first woman to become an area minister in the American Baptist Churches/USA. Since then we have ordained three men and TWELVE women into Christian ministry, some having already faced huge obstacles to serving from other congregations.
We learned how to respond to the prophetic call under the guidance of George Williamson. He was pastor of our church for 23 years until 2004, and he was well known for saying “Let’s do this!” And we, against our better judgment, usually said “OK, we’ll do this,” followed very quickly by “How are we going to do this?” In 1990 George led the charge for our church to spearhead a campaign of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. We helped raised money to buy a school bus and load it with donated medical and school supplies. Then we blessed three of our church members and two of their children to drive the heavily loaded bus to Nicaragua, talk their way past the armed border guards, and present it to the students of CEPAD, an agricultural training university in Managua. This was my first experience with the prophetic voice of First Baptist Church, and it’s been an exciting ride ever since!
An entry in our records from the 1820’s describes how the congregation pitched in to build a cabin for a woman who was “destitute and alone.” In 1990, a handful of members of our church continued that effort by establishing a Licking County chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and in 1998 our congregation took responsibility for building a Habitat house in Newark. In recent years, we've provided various types of assistance to local homeless people as well as political refugees from Central America and Liberia.
Back in 1819 our local Baptist Association welcomed us with open arms, and it took 176 years for them to change their minds. In 1994 we joined the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and that made our local Baptist region, the Columbus Baptist Association, very uncomfortable. The next year we all learned a new liturgical word: “Dis-fellowshipped”. During a series of meetings of the Columbus Baptist Association, members of our neighboring Baptist churches stood at the microphone and compared homosexuality to cancer, heart disease, alcoholism, using crack, pedophilia, stealing, lying and being overweight. They implored us to “Welcome everyone, but show them they are wrong.” One reporter appreciated the irony and she wrote, “Baptist churches are supposed to interpret scripture on their own; that’s why they’re Baptists.” More ironic was the irregular vote at the meeting to change the rules to make our dis-fellowshipping possible: 101 registered delegates produced 118 votes, but our request for a recount was denied. At least 30 people voted against the measure, and the moderator called the vote “unanimous.”
Those difficult days became a crucible for us at First Baptist Church, each of us searching our souls to decide what we believed to be true and good and just, and how far we could go individually to uphold those beliefs. Some gave up, but those of us who stayed paddled furiously through the storm, and almost everything I know about being Baptist I learned that spring.
Someone else you should know about is Bill Keucher, one of our more contemporary saints. Bill was a pastor, a Baptist scholar and a beloved member of this church, and he responded to the actions of the Columbus Baptist Association this way:
“To believe in Freedom of Conscience means to respect differences in understanding and in practice, while undergirding each other in love and prayer, remembering that all of us, the best and the worst, are sinners saved by Grace. Our sins are not nicer or better than yours; neither are they worse… Only those without sin should cast the first VOTE.”
Many of us debated whether staying with the Baptists after this circus made any sense at all. Did we really want to identify ourselves with such narrow-minded self-righteous bombasts? … Ah, but they’re OUR bombasts… and Soul Liberty and Freedom of Conscience are what we cherish as Baptists. In our church, being Baptist means standing firm, not taking your bat and ball and running home. To remain a member of the American Baptist Churches, we needed a new regional home, and we found welcome from the like-minded rugged individuals of the Rochester/Genesee Region of New York. We’re happy to be part of their region, but it’s been a challenge to make it to the potlucks.
For almost 200 years, members of this congregation have been
Abolitionists and Activists –
Soldiers and conscientious objectors –
Missionaries, pastors and seminarians –
Baptists, Catholics, Atheists and Buddhists –
Teachers, farmers, doctors, lawyers, artists, democrats and even republicans…
Whatever we call ourselves,
we are a conglomeration of unique individuals who share a common struggle
to live out the Gospel and to welcome God’s paradise on earth together.