Producer Margaret Eaton talks with founding pastor, Rev. Dr. Connie Baugh about the origins of the church.
What inspired you to create this unusual church?
Baugh: The idea for the church came during my 15 years in criminal justice ministry, first at Riker’s Island and then as the founder and executive director of Citizen Advocates For Justice, Inc. a direct service and advocacy organization for formerly incarcerated women and their children. The women repeatedly asked me for the services of the church — baptisms, funerals, marriages, and communion. Few of the women upon release from jail or prison found their way to a church community due to self imposed fears or the street stigma that church folk were “holier than thou”. What distressed me was that at a time when they most needed community and a place to begin new lives, they felt rejected, out of place, awkward in churches. They felt judged, not welcomed. Sadly, many of the women had felt this way around “church folks” their whole lives. And yet, they expressed their longing that somehow, someday, they might find a worshiping community that would encourage their own and their children’s spiritual growth, one that would accept their lives of suffering and survival, and value their insight and experiences and welcome their voices. They asked me, ” Couldn’t we build our own church?”
What was your reaction to this request from women coming out of prison to ‘make our own church’?
The more I listened to the life stories of the poorest of the poor, I could not help but feel how impoverished the Presbyterian family was without them. Could a church be built in which the voices of those who had suffered the horrors of prison and poverty be central to the decision-making process of a congregation? Could a church be built where those persons who had been disempowered and disinherited by the world, where they have been objects of charity and lived on the margins of religious life, move to the very center of religious life and walk in solidarity with other Presbyterians? These were the questions in my heart.
How did your personal faith and belief system help you find answers to those tough questions?
Baugh: Guiding me was the gospel mandate to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Jesus brought good news to the rejected of the world — the helpless, the indigent, the hungry, the oppressed, the humiliated. Today’s prisoners, the incarcerated men and women around the world, belong to this category of people which the prophetic tradition and Jesus made the principal focus of ministry –namely, the poor and the powerless. In this country, prison walls enclose our largest concentrated population of the poorest of the poor. It is with these very people that Jesus would have us bring good news of love and justice and healing and hope. After much prayer I began to feel that the time had come for such a church, and began the process with the Presbytery of New York City.
What was the Presbytery’s reaction to this idea of a church explicitly formed for prisoners, exprisoners and their families? Did they embrace it?
Baugh: Sadly, no, not initially. Acceptance and active support of individuals and individual churches was always there. But it took several years before the Presbytery fully endorsed us. We won the vote in Presbytery to start a new church development, but we hadn’t won their hearts. The resistance was great. At first it was shocking, until I realized how much fear was a driving factor, fear of the “other”, the unknown, and fear of people who had been incarcerated. The New York City Presbytery had funded a program for 3 years to have churches simply write to men and women inside jails and prisons and it failed. Of the 109 churches at the time only 3 agreed to this Penpal program. Clearly a great deal of education had to happen before formerly incarcerated persons would feel welcome in Presbytery’s established churches.
At the time, what did you think was at the core of the resistance?
Baugh: It became clear to me that while the Presbytery had come a long way in race relations, we as a Presbytery and as a national church had miles to go on issues of class. Most people have a shallow understanding of poverty. Poverty is more than an economic issue; it is more than not having enough money. Poverty is an economic, spiritual, and psychological reality encompassing all of a person’s human experience. Because of a great ignorance about poverty, poor people are blamed for their condition. And yet, Jesus taught that poverty was not the result of individual moral failure, but it was the fruit of social injustice. Money is, in my opinion, the most taboo subject in the church. We have too often followed the cultural belief that if you are rich you must be smarter, or a better person than those who are not rich. Couple that with the bizarre notion that every person should be completely independent and be able to take care of him or herself without help from the larger community, leads to a broken and callous society which I would say is where our nation is now. No one creates his or her self. This is a total myth. We are formed as human beings because of the interactions with other people and by the opportunities we are fortunate enough to be offered.
Once the initial struggle to get started was over, what sustained you and this new congregation of poor and marginalized people to keep going?
Baugh: Coping with the problems of poverty was not new to the members of Gethsemane; poverty has been woven into individuals’ life tapestries for generations. What was new was the hope we felt as individuals and as a community. At the Church of Gethsemane, poor people came together with people who were not poor and discovered that they were all persons of worth, that together we can solve some of our problems, that every voice matters and that we could learn from one another. What emerged was the knowledge that together we can play an important role in the collective struggle to transform the world in which we live. This experience of empowerment sustained us. And also our faith, which is rooted in the belief that God is a God of liberation and that our historical project as human beings is to be co-creators of a new world, in which all people are free to discover and develop their human potential.
Rev. Dr. Connie Baugh is retired and living in Massachusetts.