June 24, 2016 First Church Roxbury Begins Restoration
In June, the scaffolding began rising at the front of First Church Roxbury, and I imagined a collective sigh of relief at this concrete symbol that this iconic Boston building would be preserved into the future
I sighed myself, certainly, but was confident others joined me: Roxbury neighbors and historic preservationists, members of the churches that make up our nonprofit organization, those who believe we should navigate the present by recalling the past.
When I arrived nearly 2 years ago to serve as Executive Director and Senior Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, I did not know what to think of our possession of this historic and empty building. As a deeply rooted nonprofit serving Boston with services for those in need, this elegant, shabby building was a puzzle.
The UU Urban Ministry operates a domestic violence shelter, an afterschool program for high school students and an affordable housing program. We also offer social justice forums and cultural events designed to confront the inequities of our times racism, income inequality, violence – and to gather people together across race, class and faith. The heart of our work is finding ways to bring people together to make connections and real change.
Much of that work now happens at our campus on John Eliot Square in Roxbury an extraordinary patch of land that stands much as it did when the Puritans gathered to build a Meetinghouse in 1631.
A congregation, which became Unitarian, worshipped there continuously from then until 1976 when it dwindled and merged with the UU Urban Ministry giving over its abundant greenspace, the First Church Meetinghouse (the fifth on this site, built in 1804), and historic Putnam Chapel.
And the UU Urban Ministry began operating programs there. About 12 years ago, it moved its headquarters to the site and built the Education and Justice Center, linking First Church and Putnam Chapel. The goal was providing a beautiful space for the young people in Roxbury to learn and thrive after school there.
First Church the oldest surviving wood-frame church in Boston, the site of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s funeral, an elegant Federal-style building overlooking Boston’s downtown skyline grew mostly silent.
What did this striking building have to do, really, with the work of the UU Urban Ministry?
If you look up Roxbury on Wikipedia, you will see that this neighborhood is illustrated in some ways defined by First Church Roxbury. Roxbury has become the heart of Boston’s historic African American community. And I learned soon after arriving here that its presence and history was deeply important to the African American community here and to historic preservationists and further anyone with an appreciation for its beauty and prominence.
It is large enough to seat 800 people. It boasts beautiful acoustics. It invites a sense of awe and history. It is a place that can bring people together across race and class and faith for music, theatre, political debate. It is, indeed, a true Meetinghouse.
It had grown shabby. Its clock had stopped. Its white paint peeled.
Several years ago, Historic Boston invested in a first step to evaluating what it would take to make First Church Roxbury shine again, inside and out. An initial grant allowed the UU Urban Ministry to undertake a thorough evaluation of its condition.
This month, the scaffolding went up. Under the skillful watch of preservationist Andrea Gilmore (who serves on the HBI Council of Advisors, and who has donated her time to this project) the exterior carpentry and painting are underway.
There is much work ahead.
But we can breathe a sigh of relief, because we have made visible a sign of our commitment. Our vision is transforming this building into a cultural center serving Roxbury.
Our vision is navigating the present by understanding, and preserving, the past.
Mary Margaret Earl, is our guest blogger for this week. Mary Margaret has served as the Executive Director and Senior Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry since 2014.