Finding Warmth in Williamsburg’s Unassuming Places

When I first read this assignment I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult for me to complete because there are numerous places in Williamsburg that I have never even seen, much less visited purposefully.  For once my habit of putting things off came to good use because there was a church in town that I’d been meaning to visit but I had just never made it there on Sunday morning.  Williamsburg Baptist Church sits near the corner of Scotland Street and Richmond Road, its large brick patio welcoming passersby.  I first became interested in the church because of a plaque that’s displayed near the front doors which briefly explains its history and the church’s deep ties to the Williamsburg community.

I drove up to the parking lot at about 10:56 am, a mere four minutes before the service was supposed to begin.  The lot was practically full, but I rolled down my window to ask a man if visitors without a pass could park.  He answered, “Of course, and don’t sit all the way in the back!”  I assured him I wouldn’t, and found a space.  I was greeted by a few friendly faces when I entered the sanctuary and searched for a spot in a pew near the middle of the room.  It was pretty full, so I ended up sitting about five pews back from the front, near a woman dressed in red who smiled when I sat down.

It has been three years since I started my “church shopping” in Williamsburg and until I tried out First Baptist, I’d yet to find a place that felt welcoming, genuine, and truly the way I feel a loving and accepting Christian community should be.  Going into any new community for the first time can be nerve wracking, and I expected that.  The fact that First Baptist is a predominantly black congregation intimidated me a little (definitely no pretending you’re not a visitor), but last summer I attended a lot of different “black” churches so, thankfully, I was able to ignore the fact of skin color and just appreciate the experience for what it was— which turned out to be just what I’ve been looking for.

Although I’d never been to First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, the members there made that feel like a non-issue.  During the service, I introduced myself (as per the pastor’s request), and afterward countless individuals came up to speak to me, asking about my major, where I’m from, what I want to do after graduation, and adding that they hope to see me again.  Being raised in a family where we were taught the importance of speaking to everyone and being genuinely courteous, these conversations seemed natural to me despite having visited numerous churches where, to put it lightly, I left desiring something much more.  Leaving church, I was so happy to realize that, even in Williamsburg, there are churches full of members who act lovingly and welcoming to strangers.

While there were many older people in attendance on Sunday, I also noticed a number of families with younger children.  Besides me, I think there were about twelve others visiting for the first time who introduced themselves.  I talked with another student from William and Mary after the service, but besides him, it did not seem like there were many other students in the congregation.  Although I didn’t ask anyone personally, I assume most of the members are regular attendees who live in the Williamsburg area if not the city itself.

In general, I feel like Williamsburg presents itself as a fairly homogenous, segregated place.  I mean, it’s not usually difficult to determine who’s who among tourists, students, and townspeople, but what I mean is that the local population of “regular” residents seems to be represented most generally as middle- to upper-class white people.  Walking through William and Mary’s campus, it’s obvious that this is not the case, and visiting a place like First Baptist Church emphasizes that even more.  As students, particularly ones who are researching the city of Williamsburg and attempting to enable others to understand the city’s history more clearly,  I think it’s extra important that we draw attention to the fact that there are groups of people who, like in many cities and towns across America, are underrepresented in the historical renderings of their places.

I am thankful that this assignment gave me the extra urge I needed to visit First Baptist Church of Williamsburg.  The group that meets there every week is certainly a thriving, significant part of the city’s culture and history. (It’s existed since 1776!)  Not only did I discover a welcoming, loving community in what can often seem like a stuffy, resistant-to-change place like Williamsburg, my experience also reiterated the importance of examining and appreciating the multi-faceted nature of places.  I definitely won’t be surprised to find myself sitting on the fifth pew again next week.


About

The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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