Historic African American church excited to be ‘on mission together’

When M.R. Smith Sr. became pastor of one of North Carolina’s oldest African American churches, he and the church were looking for opportunities to partner with other like-minded churches for fellowship and ministry.

In 2019, Smith led First Congregational Church of Raleigh, N.C., to affiliate with the Raleigh Baptist Association and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

And although the church’s affiliation came just prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and a transition in leadership at the state convention, Smith says he and his congregation are excited to be part of a network of churches that are on mission together.

“The church exists to reach, reconcile and restore human lives,” said Smith, a Raleigh native who became pastor of First Congregational Church in 2017 after a lengthy ministry in correctional chaplaincy. “Thus the mission is to reach out to the world that needs to hear the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Smith said First Congregational Church affiliated with N.C. Baptists due, in large part, to convictions and compatibility in key doctrines and distinctives, such as local church autonomy, being gospel-centered as well as Great Commission and kingdom-focused.

Smith says outreach has long been a part of First Congregational Church’s history, which began more than 150 years ago in 1867 and grew out of efforts by the American Missionary Association to help educate freed slaves in the south. The church was incorporated in 1907 and became an institution in a predominately African American neighborhood of downtown Raleigh known as the fourth ward. Educating the African American community was a priority in its inception.

First Congregational Church experienced tremendous growth and expansion throughout the early 1900s, which included the establishment of Washington High School and community outreach that are two of the church’s many ministries that still exist today. The church eventually moved to its current location in southeast Raleigh in July 1977.

“The church exists to reach, reconcile and restore human lives.” — M.R. Smith Sr.

Smith grew up in Raleigh and served churches in the area after graduating from Fayetteville State University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned both a master of divinity and doctor of ministry. He went on to serve as a full-time chaplain and pastor in the state and federal prison system for 27 years before retiring in 2015 as the first African American to serve as chief chaplain for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C.

Upon his return to Raleigh, he has continued to serve in correctional ministry in various capacities on the state and national levels. Smith says his service in correctional chaplaincy has had a tremendous impact on his perspective on missions and outreach.

“Correctional chaplaincy was my spiritual formation in missions,” Smith said. “It led me to see that Jesus came because He loved everyone no matter what they had done.”

And since returning to his hometown and re-entering the pastorate at First Congregational Church, Smith has seen firsthand how the local mission field in Raleigh has changed, as well.

“Raleigh is more diverse,” Smith said. “Raleigh’s mission field now is a multiethnic opportunity to reach out with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.”

And now being connected with other churches who are on mission together, Smith encourages more churches to consider doing the same.

“We’re stronger together than not being together,” Smith said. “The diversity of the body of Christ is needed to fulfill the Great Commission today.… I would say to other churches, ‘Be involved. Don’t be isolated. Come together.’

“Because that’s the only way we can make a difference in these last days.”