The Common Good

Dismal parting for storied D.C. church and its first black pastor

Some members complained about people clapping or shouting praise words during worship, and they disliked altar calls, an emotive practice common in evangelical churches that involves people going to the front of the sanctuary to express their faith.

“They wanted to maintain a quiet church. There were some who were afraid that the church was becoming too black under Rev. Haggray,” said Dewey Reeves, leader of the church deacons. Reeves is among a handful of black members who have joined and taken leadership positions at the church since Haggray’s arrival. “It is very discouraging. Here we are in 2013, and we want to run a church like a country club.”

Haggray engineered a development deal — turning a parking lot into an apartment building — that is supposed to bring First Baptist $1 million a year for decades. Some Haggray supporters said people were anxious about new members making decisions on how the money would be spent.

Some longtime members left, but new members joined the congregation, including Jim Wallis, a well-known evangelical author and activist, and Burns Strider, a faith adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential campaign.

In transient Washington, members came and went, including many who were on the committee that picked Haggray. But by the time Haggray’s resignation was announced March 24, the tensions had taken a toll on attendance. Wallis, who founded the community organizing group Sojourners, said he and his wife, who was a deacon, joined First Baptist to hear Haggray. Now, he said, they have decided to leave.