By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Spring is a favorite time for couples to marry or to renew their vows of love and loyalty before friends and family under a church roof. But recently about 50 members of the Historic First Baptist Church of Norfolk held a ceremony to rededicate and renew their vows to continue the civic and religious mission of the church. The church is 216 years old this year and it will use a series of services come July to observe being the oldest Baptist church in Norfolk.
The current sanctuary on Bute Street opened and was first used on May 6, 1906 at 2:30 p.m., its history records say. This past May 6, 2016 100 years later at 2:30 p.m., 50 members of the congregation and the church’s Senior Pastor Dr. Robert G. Murray, came together for a “prayerful” moment in the sanctuary to observe that historic time.
Lula Sears Rogers, the church’s historian, said that after the prayer, the pastor and others “laid hands” on everything in the sanctuary to bestow a spiritual and personal rededication to the church’s continued mission as a spiritual home and vehicle of service to the community. Dr. Murray said there were two important factors which fostered the idea for the May 6 event. Murray said that people touring the historic church who do not know its history tend to ask “whom did you buy the building from?”
“First,” he said, “this building was the vision of the Senior Pastor Richard Bowling, Sr., who was leading people, many of whom had been born in slavery from the 19th into the 20th century. They were blessed by God to raise the money which funded, designed and built the church.” Murray said the church has not only been a venue for worship, but a gathering place for people in Norfolk who want to serve the community.
Rogers said that the congregation of the church starting in 1903 began raising the money to build the current sanctuary. She mentioned that a campaign waged by the church’s ”Penny Crusaders” contributed to the $90,000 to fund and build it. First Baptist Church, according to Rogers, was designed by Chattanooga Architect Reuben Harrison Hunt, who also designed Portsmouth’s Court Street Baptist Church in 1903.
“Hunt was the leading church architect of his time,” said Rogers. “All of the churches he designed were huge, opulent and spectacular structures. You can see his distinct presence in downtown Norfolk each time you drive by it.” Murray spoke proudly of the service ministries of his church which provide food, counseling and other services to the community. It sits in the heart of downtown Norfolk.
Its Ready Academy for pre-k students and the Murray Banquet and Conference Center illustrate the church’s economic presence in that corner of the city. The church also played a hand in bring down the walls to massive resistance and Jim Crow. It established a temporary school for the 17 children who were designated to attend the city’s all-white schools that were closed because the court ordered them to desegregate.
Rogers said that Black educators tutored the students, and helped maintain their educational skills to ready them for time when the schools eventually reopened in February of 1959.
We enter the sanctuary to worship, but we leave to serve,” said Murray, the 19th senior pastor of the church, starting his tenure in 1983.