By Samuel Rowland
First Baptist Church of White Plains and Iglesia: Misión Bautista Hispana de Westchester came together Sunday to hold a joint service and reception to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of First Baptist Church’s founding, as well as their soon-to-be-finalized merger into a single congregation with bilingual services in English and Spanish.
The event began with a bilingual service, led by both Rev. Timothy Dalton of First Baptist Church and Rev. Abner E. Cotto-Bonilla of Misión Bautista. The sermon was given by the Rev. Cheryl F. Dudley, Doctor of Theology and Regional Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York (ABCMNY), a community of 180 Baptist churches in the greater NYC area, including the two congregations at the celebration.
Dudley spoke about performing the sometimes painful and awkward work of reaching out across cultural and ethnic divides to spread the faith through the story of Jesus Christ’s conversation with the unnamed Samaritan women in the Gospel of John, Chapter 4.
Misión Bautista has shared worship space with First Baptist Church since its first service on March 15, 1981, and its official organization on February 19, 1985. Misión Bautista formed from a Sunday Spanish Bible Study class started by First Baptist Church in 1973. Besides sharing space, there has been a deep partnership between the two congregations over the years, including joint Christmas Pageants and Easter and Pentecost services, which the merger will only strengthen. Church Board Member and Property Chair Cathy Burdick noted that the merger is still not complete yet though, as the jointly run Vision Team is working to ensure an equitable merger, with a special emphasis on preventing financial issues.
After the one-hour service ended, the congregants gathered outside for a tent reception and lunch party. As people socialized and ate prepped lunch boxes or Popeye’s takeout, more speakers gave speeches from the front steps of the church.
White Plains Mayor Tom Roach, Deputy Westchester County Executive Ken Jenkins, Westchester County Board of Legislators Chair Ben Boykin II, and State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins all gave separate framed proclamations to First Baptist Church in honor of its anniversary and years of community and global outreach programs.
Jenkins spoke on behalf of the County Executive’s office, as County Executive George Latimer had stayed for the service, but not the reception, and gave a proclamation recognizing First Baptist Church for 150 years as “an outstanding house of worship”.
The other three government dignitaries’ proclamations all separately proclaimed June 27, 2021 as First Baptist Church Day at the city, county, and state levels. Boykin also noted that the Jumbotron in front of the Westchester County Center would display this announcement for the rest of the day.
Other speakers included Cynthia Abbot Kauffman, a trustee of the White Plains Historical Society, who spoke in period costume and in-character as White Plains historical figure Sarah Purdy, who was born soon after the Revolutionary War and lived through the Civil War in White Plains. Kauffman spoke about the history of the Baptist Church in White Plains during Sarah Purdy’s lifetime, going back before the 1871 opening of the first of three First Baptist Church building.
Two recipients of the David Manierre Scholarship Fund, started to honor the memory of a 16-year-old congregant who died in a car crash in 2002, also gave short speeches.
After all the speakers were finished, congregants and other attendees settled in for lunch as an ice cream truck pulled up and religious songs were performed by the First Baptist Church’s lead singer Kate Wiswell and lead musician Matt Perez, alongside performances from Victoria Gonzalez, Spencer Moon and Salomon Rendon.