It seems only fitting that the District’s oldest Baptist church would continue adding to its rich and impressive legacy during Black History Month – installing just its fourth senior pastor in the last 134 years.
But given the past accomplishments of the Rev. Dr. Darryl D. Roberts and the vision he brings to the downtown house of worship, it’s clear that the members of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest have made the right choice.
Roberts, 41, officially took over earlier this year on the first Sunday in January. But as a means of presenting Roberts to the District and to allow the just over 600 members to celebrate their new pastor’s arrival, the church hosted a weekend of memorable events that culminated with two installation services on Feb. 19. Some of the country’s most respected theologians and ministers, representing a diverse group of denominations, shared their gifts in a variety of way in support of their friend and colleague.
Participants included: Dr. Otis Moss Jr., civil rights activist and close friend of both Dr. M.L. King Jr. and King’s father, “Daddy King;” Dr. Robert M. Franklin, the 10th president of Morehouse College; Rev. Martha Simmons, Rush Memorial United Church of Christ, Atlanta; Rev. Edward Reynolds, Midway Baptist Church, Atlanta; and Alton B. Pollard III, dean and professor of religion and culture, Howard University, School of Divinity.
One member of the installation committee said the selection of Roberts came after an intensive 18-month search during which time a host of visiting ministers stepped in as needed.
“The process we followed is common within the Baptist tradition – it’s time consuming and there are a lot of meetings – we take our time. We began with 80 applicants from across the U.S., reduced that number to our top 10, all of whom were invited to preach, and finally presented three candidates to the congregation for a vote,” said Edith Bullard, a Silver Spring resident and marketing and communications specialist who joined the church 10 years ago.
“It took several votes before we reached the required two-thirds majority and I think it was his impressive background, leadership in the Baptist church and the social justice programs he led during his years in Atlanta that made the difference,” she said. We wanted someone fairly young who had been a pastor before and who could both engage our elders and bring in younger members.”
“We’re a church concerned with what happens beyond the walls outside in the community and wanted someone who shared that view,” she said.
Roberts says following in the footsteps of the three previous pastors, Rev. Dr. Walter H. Brooks (1882-1945), the Rev. Jerry A. Moore Jr. (1946-1997) and Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins (1997-2015), who collectively accumulated an impressive total of service years, “is a privilege and honor.”
“It’s both a challenge and an opportunity to be in this new season and to build upon the legacy of such great giants,” said Roberts, the former senior pastor of Mount Welcome Missionary Baptist Church (Decatur, Georgia) and a man of letters with a Doctor of Philosophy in Ethics, a Juris Doctorate, a Master of Divinity and a Bachelor of Arts from Emory University, Boston College, the University of Chicago and Grinnell College, respectively.
“The fact that they served at our church for such a long time gives me encouragement that I have the support, foundation and the traditions to help me carry out God’s vision for our church,” said Roberts, who also brings the love and support of his wife, Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts and their two young children.
He noted that as a downtown-based church, they face unique challenges.
“Gentrification has impacted many businesses and churches and while we are not immune to it, we don’t see it as a threat to us – a church that has served with distinction in the spiritual and cultural life of Washington, D.C. for over 177 years,” Roberts said.
“We have members from all over the DMV which means commuting is an issue of concern. Still, churches in the 21st century, no matter where they’re located, if they are committed to growing and thriving, tend to have five things in common: a strong teaching ministry; vibrant youth and children’s programs; exciting worship; strong external and internal media; and a strong administrative infrastructure.”
“Our seniors make up the bulk of our membership but we’re seeing many of their children, grandchildren and friends, many of whom grew up in the church but left, now returning. That’s very encouraging and promising.”
As for today’s millennials, Roberts believes he has a relatively simple solution to drawing them into the fold.
“I believe they’re looking for churches that are busy doing work to build and rebuild our community,” he said. “As the pastor, I must do things that will attract more millennials, like considering what it means to shape the worship experience so that they feel our liturgy, message and music speaking to them. At the same time our worship services must continue to speak to the needs of our older populations and to our children.
“It’s all about examining and reexamining our current ministries, asking ourselves if we are creating a welcoming environment that both attracts and prepares our millennials, as well as others, for opportunities in leadership,” he added.