Since its earliest days of opposition to slavery, OCBC has been known for “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” It has often interpreted the gospel of Jesus as allegiance to a high order than the state, or even “the Empire,” whether it occurred in Roman times or in our contemporary United States, whenever government policies go against the basic precepts of the Sermon on the Mount. In a few cases, this view has resulted in surveillance by the FBI and possible break-ins by the government during our 1985 declarations of Sanctuary for “undocumented” Central American immigrants. These instances are a point of pride, not shame, for many members of the congregation.
A pioneer among churches who are welcoming and affirming of gay and lesbian (currently GLBT) people, OCBC has supported gay rights openly since 1983. We helped co- found AWAB in 1983, but many people from OCBC were active well before that in the precursor organizations within TABCOM and ABC. This stance was a continuation of a longstanding social justice legacy, which included and still includes combating racism, protesting the Vietnam War, supporting the equality of women in the world and in worship services, giving energy to the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s and immigrant rights today, and an active “green” conservation policy. Together, these legacies of resistance and activism function to give OCBC and its individual members an identity.
There are many references to this legacy in the paragraphs above on recent pastors, but a few more details are noted here. All of them continue to this day, but the dates below are when they were a primary focus.
1. CIVIL RIGHTS/BLACK LIBERATION
From 1963, to this day, OCBC has been active in racial justice. Ernie Klein went to the civil rights march in D.C., where parishioners Harvey Cox and Paul Chapman were sent to jail. And in 1968, the church gave $50,000, “no strings attached,” to the Community Development fund, which was to be used for “black self-determination.” Fifty years later, an active Racial Justice Group encourages increasing the church’s multicultural membership numbers and is networking with like-minded churches to support modern day “New Jim Crow” which work to erase prison inequity for people of color and protect minority voter registration in the face of a national backlash.
2. ANTI WAR and PEACE
In October 1969, OCBC offered sanctuary to Eric Mann, the leader of the Weatherman, who wished to explain his opposition to the Vietnam War before giving himself up to the police. In April of 1970, a violent antiwar riot in Harvard Square spilled over into the OCBC sanctuary, which served as a temporary first aid station and sanctuary. Members of the church participated in many marches against war and its human and financial waste, from Vietnam days to the current “operations” in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been active in supporting Veterans for Peace.
In the early 1970s, a group of women who called themselves Sojourners began to meet in the church’s tower room and claim political leadership within the church. The feminist movement was challenging ideas of male leadership and gender based assumptions, and this group focused on a radical re-imaging of faith, implementing gender equality in the church and the language of worship, and welcoming sexual minorities. The women’s and lesbian liberation movements overlapped in many ways, and more women in the church were coming out as lesbians. Not only was at least one woman, Betsy Sowers, inspired to enter the ministry at this time, several women ministers, settled, interim, and part time, have carried it on. The language of worship itself was transformed to make it more inclusive of a female and/or gender neutral deity.
4. SANCTUARY for CENTRAL AMERICAN REFUGEES
On December 4, 1984, OCBC became host to Estela Ramirez, an El Salvadoran trade unionist who was arrested and tortured on three separate occasions between 1981 and 1984 for her work. She took up residence in OCBC’s chapel for two weeks, where she was constantly surrounded by at least two “vigiling” members from OCBC who were trained in how to handle the very real threat of INS action. The congregation remains dedicated to today’s undocumented immigrants, who are often fleeing persecution by U.S.-backed dictatorships. Before and after this event, OCBC had supported and refugees, “undocumented” or not, including a pro-democracy family from Chile, who had to flee after the military coup there.
Just as Martin Luther King Jr. used Amos to critique the white establishment of his day, OCBC’s works are filed with references to scripture. Like many of the other churches in the Sanctuary Movement, they drew much of their strength from the biblical tradition of sanctuary, specifically referencing Deuteronomy 19:10: “And...let no innocent blood be shed in the land which the Lord your God is giving you, or else the responsibility for that blood will fall upon you.” This verse arises time and time again in OCBC’s conversations about their involvement with the Sanctuary Movement. Two other passages also occupy prominent places in OCBC’s conversations about Sanctuary, Matthew 22:37-40 and I John 4:18-21. According to OCBC’s statement of purpose, the congregation was acting “in the love that Jesus said sums up the Law and prophets. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. (And)...love your neighbor as yourself.’”
5. GAY AND LESBIAN and LGBT LIBERATION
OCBC’s theological interpretation of these same texts were crucial to its decision to become involved in the project of LGBT inclusion. The Daughters of Bilitis, an early and important lesbian group, rented office space in the church for years. The church’s involvement began in the 1980’s when the congregation’s pastor, Monica Styron, started a gay and lesbian support group. In 1983, according to Grace Peters, Monica approached Grace about producing a statement of “welcoming and affirming” congregation in 1983. Adopting this status in 1983, years before most of the progressive congregations in Harvard Square, meant that OCBC was placing itself in a vulnerable position, and the congregation’s further leadership within American Baptists Concerned meant that OCBC ran the very real risk of having its standing in the ABC (USA) revoked. While she was pastor, Monica came out as a lesbian. In 2013, AWAB (Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists) added its 88th member congregation. We continue to urge the American Baptist denomination to go on record as accepting LGBT people.
Guided by the Spirit, the congregation at Old Cambridge Baptist Church is following a Divine call to cultivate sanctuary for all persons – especially for those marginalized and put at risk by interpersonal violence and oppressive governmental policy. We see sanctuary as a concrete, yet partial sign of the presence of the Reign of God in our midst today – a Reign that Jesus embodied. Thus, taking the mission of Jesus as our own, we endeavor to bring good news and to be good news to the poor, to proclaim and to practice release for those in captivity, to promote and provoke sight where we are collectively blinded, and to worship and work for the freedom for all the oppressed (rooted in Luke 4:18).
In light of our sense of call, we as a congregation commit ourselves to supporting Sanctuary practices for those most at risk in our current era, including the undocumented and Muslims targeted by individual and institutional discrimination, and will continually discern the most vital ways to place ourselves, institutionally and individually, in positions of holy risk to be in solidarity with our neighbors.
(adopted by the congregation on January 22, 2017)
OCBC's Sanctuary History
In the mid-1980s a number of religious communities found a way to take responsibility for the oppression and suffering of people in Central America under regimes supported by the U.S. government. With the example of a church in Tucson, AZ and the coordination of the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, churches began sponsoring political refugees, even though undocumented, with an important story to tell about their experience. The idea was to provide at least symbolic sanctuary to these persons and give them a platform from which to tell their stories and educate folks in the U.S. OCBC responded to this appeal in a year-long consideration of the risks a church undertook for “furthering the entrance or harboring an undocumented alien. Even though facing possible fines and imprisonment, OCBC finally voted unanimously to become a Sanctuary church. We were very much influenced by the story of a French village harboring and assisting Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, as told in the book, “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed” by Phillip Hallie. (Deuteronomy 19:10: “And…let no innocent blood be shed in the land which the Lord your God is giving you, or else the responsibility for that blood will fall upon you.”)
On December 4, 1984, OCBC became host to “Estela Ramirez,” a Salvadoran trade unionist who was arrested and tortured on three separate occasions between 1981 and 1984 for her work. She took up residence in OCBC’s chapel for two weeks, where she was constantly surrounded by at least two “vigiling” members from OCBC who were trained in how to handle the very real threat of action by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “Estela” started with a press conference in the OCBC Parish Hall, supported by members of the OCBC Sanctuary Committee. Over the next three years, she spoke at many churches, gave interviews for newspapers, TV and radio, enlightening folks in the Boston area about the reality of El Salvador through her own experience. The Sanctuary movement then helped her bring her three children to the States, and the OCBC Sanctuary Committee helped her and her children successfully file for political asylum.
The congregation remains dedicated to today’s undocumented immigrants, who are often fleeing problems still attributable in part to US policies.
Old Cambridge Baptist Church has been involved in racial justice issues from its earliest years, when it supported abolition and welcomed at least one fugitive slave into its congregation. During the 1960s, its racial justice work included a task force on civil rights and a substantial Community Development Fund for “black self-determination.”
More recently, OCBC members formed a Racial Justice Group, which began meeting informally in members’ homes in 2012. Following several months of conversation, reading, and reflection, the group sponsored a series of Sunday adult forums, focusing on white privilege, minority housing and education, mass incarceration, and other issues. In our final session, inspired by a reading of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, we decided to put a major effort into prison
One outcome of that decision has been our involvement with the Jobs Not Jails campaign. We participated in a petition drive and rally organized by that group in 2013, and continue to gather at the State House and contact legislators regarding prison reform legislation supported by Jobs Not
Another outcome has been our involvement with Partakers, a program that connects mentoring teams with incarcerated persons taking courses through the BU program. Our first Partakers team has been meeting with a young man in Norfolk Prison since 2014, and a second team was just formed to mentor another person in the same
The Racial Justice Group has continued to hold one or two series of adult forums each year. Some have been designed to educate us on such topics as the history of slavery in Cambridge and the involvement of the American church in racial justice history; others—such as a recent series based on the book Gather at the Table—invite us to reflect more deeply on our personal and corporate experiences of race and racism.
The adult forums have drawn record numbers of people to the after-church gatherings, and the Racial Justice Group itself has grown so large that it’s no longer possible to meet in people’s homes. Starting this fall, the entire congregation will be involved in a full year of worship, study, reflection, and activism focusing on racial justice, which we are currently calling Dismantling White Supremacy. More information about this exciting year will be coming soon!
OCBC was most likely the first Baptist church in the country to become welcoming to gay and lesbian people and fully affirming of their lives and place in the church. Since 1983, OCBC has held this stance of welcome and inclusion, working for justice for LGBTQ people inside the church and in wider society. Many LGBTQ people find a spiritual home at OCBC and many of the congregation's pastors over the past three decades have also been lesbian and gay.
Today, the congregation is active in education surrounding gender identity and seeks active ways of participating in the work for justice for transgender, intersex, and genderqueer people in church and society.