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Reynolds Chapman: Local History Matters to God

You might not think often about the land your church sits on or the community beyond your church property. But finding ways to learn local history and include it in worship may help church members become more faithful disciples, more meaningfully draw near to God, and reach people who are disconnected from the church.

Reynolds Chapman is executive director of DurhamCares, a nonprofit in Durham, North Carolina, that fosters collaboration, develops leaders, and educates the people of Durham to care for their neighbors in holistic ways. An ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church, he is also an associate minister at Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church. In this edited conversation, Chapman talks about learning local history and incorporating it into worship.

Why did you decide to do a grant project about learning local history and incorporating it into worship? 

In the last fifty years, so many North Americans have become “placeless.” They and their churches often lack a sense of being rooted in the land, neighborhood, town, or city around them. DurhamCares and our partner churches have strong convictions that place matters to all aspects of Christian life, discipleship, missions, and worship.

Our 2018 Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) helped connect four East Durham churches cultivate ecumenical worship responsive to the neighborhood. We called ourselves the East Durham Vital Worship Movement, collaboratively planned outdoor worship events, and went on a prayer walk. That made churches want to dig deeper into the story of their communities and how their neighborhoods have become what they are. We planned our 2020 CICW grant to help churches do just that. 

How did your partner churches learn more about local history?

The pandemic changed and lengthened our 2020 grant. We had to switch many events from in-person to Zoom, but we still learned a lot from Dr. Charles Denton Johnson. He directs the public history program at Durham’s North Central Carolina University, a historically Black college and university. Johnson and his students do digital history projects such as Mapping Black Durham.

Dr. Johnson taught us how to gather oral histories and search county and city directories, old maps, and city plats. We learned that much of neighborhood history resides in historic churches and cemeteries, and we learned how to explore our own congregation’s history through best practices.

Figuring out how to remember and apply all that history to congregations sounds hard.

The group DataWorks NC also helped us. Its goal is to democratize data by prioritizing work that benefits Durham’s communities of color and people impacted by historical disinvestment. DataWorks NC offered compelling, well-researched presentations precisely tailored to the questions our grantee congregations were asking. They also attended sessions with congregations to help them connect the data with their everyday life.

For example, in 2019, evictions began rising in East Durham and other majority Black neighborhoods. DataWorks NC partnered with Hacking into History to show that even though redlining and racial covenants have ended, racist housing practices live on in predatory lending and purchasing that displace long-time residents. DataWorks NC offers resources to understand and fight eviction.

What did you learn about East Durham’s neighborhood history?

East Durham is now a large neighborhood near downtown. But, like all of Durham County, it sits on land originally occupied by Indigenous people, including the Eno and Occaneechi. European colonizers stole their ancestral lands in the 1600s and 1700s and built prosperous farms and plantations. East Durham was built in the 1880s as a village for white people who labored in cotton mills.

The city of Durham created racial covenants to keep white neighborhoods white. It funneled Black residents to neighborhoods near factories, railroads, and incinerators. Black people started moving into East Durham as the textile industry declined and white people moved out. City leaders used redlining to limit investment in Black neighborhoods. Banks and the Federal Housing Association wouldn’t loan money for people of color to buy or improve their homes to create generational wealth. Parks and playgrounds were segregated, and white neighborhoods had more city-planted trees and public recreational space.

In the last decade or so, East Durham’s formerly redlined blocks are becoming gentrified. Corporate investors are buying up and renovating properties. People of higher income, mostly white, are moving in, which drives up rents, home prices, and property taxes. The neighborhood has become a mix of some areas owned by slumlords and others where you can’t buy a home for less than $500,000.

Was all your grant learning online?

No. As COVID-19 restrictions eased, we were finally able to take grantees on our Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope. DurhamCares leads that pilgrimage to help people discover how their spiritual journey is connected to the places where they live and worship and is included in God’s story. People change when they see places of pain and hope and when they worship in historic churches.

We hear about Durham’s Indigenous and Latino/a history. We visit Stagville Plantation, one of North Carolina’s largest plantations. We learn about Hayti, once known as one of our country’s Black Wall Streets. North Carolina Central University borders the Hayti neighborhood and further contributed to Hayti’s Black prosperity and cultural renaissance. But in the 1960s and 1970s, as in cities across the United States, so-called “urban renewal” projects demolished Black communities. The federal government built State Highway 147. It tore through the heart of Hayti and displaced or condemned more than a hundred Black businesses, more than five hundred households, and White Rock Baptist Church, one of Durham’s oldest Black congregations.

What are good ways for preachers to include local history in sermons? 

Preach not in the abstract, but by naming people, streets, or laws that need to be changed. When a crisis happens and people are grieving, name it in sermons. Be specific, but don’t name it as an isolated incident when it’s actually rooted in patterns that are not new. Explain when the incident is part of racism that affects housing, zoning, or market policies in ways that impact Black or other communities. Acknowledge how the history of public education and public health inequities impact students of color and mass incarceration.

Preachers can use local history to talk about the resilience and creativity of Black people or other oppressed communities who created self-sufficient communities. Dr. Johnson produced an excellent video tour through historic Black Durham, focusing on Hayti. The Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was perhaps the best-known Black Wall Street, but America had many Black Wall Streets.

How about including local history in other worship elements?

Ask the older people in your church or church neighborhood what songs have been in their hearts for years. Then sing those songs in worship and connect them with the stories. Encourage creativity in how you can write songs, prayers, and litanies that name concrete specifics. Sometimes local references become universal. When you say the names of Rodney King or George Floyd, people think of police brutality.

But most Christian music on the radio isn’t created to include specifics. It might praise God for being a healing God, but locally written songs or worship elements can name real-life examples of healing that have happened. The music of Urban Doxology does this to some degree, such as in the song “God Who Delivers.”

Does your advice for white churches differ from your advice for multiracial churches or churches of color? 

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Institute, often says that we need to talk about the racial narrative of fear and anger, the narrative that people who are not white are not as worthy. But Stevenson says that we’ve never really contended with that narrative in the United States. Any congregation can dig into racism in a way that produces growth, though they’ll have different ways to do it.

I talked recently with Rev. Sarah Ball-Damberg, a white Episcopal priest at Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill. The church’s racial equity and land committee is helping its congregation and diocese dig into connections between race and property. They’ve discovered that Duncan Cameron, who enslaved almost a thousand people at Stagville Plantation, helped found their diocese.

Through DurhamCares, many local churches are getting to know each other across race, class, and denomination. In our 2023 Advent devotionals, Rev. Heather Rodrigues noted that although Highway 147 demolished White Rock Baptist Church, highway planners designed a bend to avoid destroying Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, the congregation she pastors (Day 10). Rev. Demarcus Williams is an associate minister at Greater Emmanuel Temple of Grace Church, which has been part of all our grants. He wrote about Durham’s immense challenges, its peoples’ resilience, embracing hope, and the joy of cooperating with many partners for a back-to-school event (Day 20).

What’s next for mobilizing churches through DurhamCares?

I’ll mention three things. First, part of changing the racial narrative in Durham involves going to the “Nazareths,” the places no one thinks any good comes out of. People who live in Durham’s public housing communities are gifted and loved by God. Yet they are rarely visited by churches or non-residents. Our 2023 Vital Worship, Vital Preaching Grant is about recognizing the artistic gifts and lived experiences of public housing residents. We’re offering training in Black worship arts (such as spoken word, step, DJing, visual arts, and hip-hop) and working together with partner churches to create outdoor public worship that glorifies God.

Second, we are the fiscal sponsor and a key partner of The Mt. Level Community Partnership for Racial Justice (p. 4). The MLCPRJ unites twenty-two churches across generations, denominations, and racial groups. In 2023 the partnership sponsored book studies, an Alabama pilgrimage, special community education events, and a six-week summer Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School where scholars learn to excel and believe that they and their families can make a difference in the world.

Finally, DurhamCares recently received a large grant from the Lilly Endowment Thriving Congregations Initiative. Our five-year Journey to Thriving program will help three cohorts of six Durham congregations know their community, know their congregation, and make an adaptive plan to make change.


Register for one of DurhamCares’s signature events, the Durham Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope. Watch a video about the pilgrimage (3:37). Watch a short video (2:01) or read about how urban renewal in the form of new highways destroyed BIPOC communities and harmed the health of those living near the highways.