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In Greenwich, a Black church celebrates 126 years of building community

Victor Gordon and Deaconess Ruby Durant greet each other during worship service at First Baptist Church on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 in Greenwich, Conn.
Joe Buglewicz
/
Connecticut Public
Victor Gordon and Deaconess Ruby Durant greet each other during worship service at First Baptist Church on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 in Greenwich, Conn.

The parking lot belonging to the First Baptist Church in Greenwich can’t accommodate more than 10 cars. It hasn’t been able to restart its Sunday school program in person even after the COVID-19 lockdowns eased up.

Yet the people who continue to attend Sunday service more than make up for any challenges, Rev. Dwyane Newell said.

Deaconess Ruby Durant listens during worship service at First Baptist Church on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 in Greenwich, Conn. The service celebrated the 126th anniversary of the church, which was founded in 1897.
Joe Buglewicz
/
Connecticut Public
Deaconess Ruby Durant listens during worship service at First Baptist Church, founded in 1897.

“We're not large in number,” he said, “but we're great in spirit.”

It’s also great in history. The church, in Greenwich’s Fourth Ward, has continuously ministered to African Americans since 1897. First Baptist endures even in the face of demographic changes and the pandemic.

The church has survived those challenges and continues to thrive, said Rev. Thomas Nins, who’s served as senior pastor of the church for more than 20 years.

“It’s no small feat,” he said.

People keep coming to First Baptist to build connections, Nins said.

“What I do from where I do it in the way that I do it, has always been about building connection, strengthening relationships, attempting to encourage, inspire people,” Nins said.

The church’s pews were half empty on Sunday, the day worshipers celebrated the church’s 126th anniversary, but those connections were still happening as Nins spoke of people being different but together in communion. They listened as Newell sang: “Through his hands, lives are changing hands.”

First Baptist Church choir members Gracie Smith, Betty Lawson, Stephanie Washington, Ruby Durant, Dorothy Vickers, Lisa Forrow and Marlene Hyatt sing hymns on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 in Greenwich, Conn. The service celebrated the 126th anniversary of the church, which was founded in 1897.
Joe Buglewicz
/
Connecticut Public
First Baptist Church choir members Gracie Smith, Betty Lawson, Stephanie Washington, Ruby Durant, Dorothy Vickers, Lisa Forrow and Marlene Hyatt sing hymns on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 in Greenwich, Conn. The service celebrated the 126th anniversary of the church, which was founded in 1897.

A collection plate made its way around the congregation, coming back filled with a mix of crisp and crumpled bills.

They prayed together and listened as a worshiper delivered a quick speech about the history of the church.

But Nins is thankful it wasn’t just a recollection of what once was.

“Thank God, this is not just a history lesson,” he said. “Thank God this is just not anecdotal that we are here just remembering a church that no longer stands.”

Reverend Dr. Thomas L. Nins leads worship service at First Baptist Church on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 in Greenwich, Conn. The service celebrated the 126th anniversary of the church, which was founded in 1897.
Joe Buglewicz
/
Connecticut Public
Reverend Dr. Thomas L. Nins leads worship service at First Baptist Church.

The church was founded by several clergy and worshipers of the Baptist denomination. It had humble beginnings. Services started out at the home of a worshiper before members moved to a stand-alone location in 1906 on Lewis Street.

In 1909, the church moved to Northfield Street. It has stayed there ever since.

The church, Nins said, has witnessed numerous events in American history, from two world wars, the civil rights movement, and just recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced houses of worship to close or heavily reduce services.

The lockdowns have long since ended, but the effects still linger. Many people, Nins said, now stay at home and view sermons online from the convenience of their homes. He’s an authority on scripture, but now he also needs to know how to resolve a live-streaming issue, which happened momentarily at Sunday’s service.

Newell said there are other effects.

“You don't see as many people as you used to on the road as you're coming to church at a certain time,” Newell said.

Various churches have closed down as a result, unable to weather the drops in attendance and donations. But Newell said First Baptist’s size ended up being an asset.

The choir sings during worship service at First Baptist Church on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 in Greenwich, Conn.
Joe Buglewicz
/
Connecticut Public
The choir sings during worship service at First Baptist Church on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 in Greenwich, Conn.

“As a small church, if you are still continuing the way you are, you can still withstand whatever comes in your way, because it's not overwhelming,” he said.

The church has seen many changes in the neighborhood through the years. The Fourth Ward, considered one of the earliest urban subdivisions in Greenwich, hada significant community of African Americansduring the late 1800s.

Nins said many worshippers have aged out of the church or been priced out of Greenwich, often ranked as one the country’s wealthiest cities. Most of the congregation, he said, come from areas outside of Greenwich. White residents now make up more than 75% of the Greenwich population, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. African American residents make up a little over 5%.

People are shocked when they realize First Baptist not only continues to exist, but has such long-running roots, Nins said.

“I believe that even now, people who don't know the churches here are stunned by that, because they wouldn't necessarily associate a congregation that is comprised of primarily African Americans in the town of Greenwich. And yet, here we are,” he said.

One of them is Stephanie Washington, who lives in Port Chester, New York. She’s a recent member, having joined around 2017.

Light streams into the First Baptist Church on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 prior to Sunday worship in Greenwich, Conn.
Joe Buglewicz
/
Connecticut Public
Light streams into the First Baptist Church on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2023 prior to Sunday worship in Greenwich, Conn.

To get to the church, she commutes by bus for 25 minutes. She does that because she prefers Nins’ sermons. But she said she comes back because of the community.

“I was doing that online, it's like, being on the outside looking in, but when you come to church, you're actually fellowshipping one with another, to worship God,” Washington said. “And, for me, that's what keeps me coming.”

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