April 18, 2015
Wake Forest Baptist Church was organized in 1956 when Wake Forest College moved from Wake Forest, North Carolina, to Winston-Salem, thereby perpetuating a 125-year-old tradition of having a Baptist church at the center of the campus. Since that time, Wake Forest Baptist Church has maintained a unique relationship with the university.
Though it operates as an autonomous congregation — electing its ministers, raising its budget, conducting its business and operating its programs — the church is housed in Wingate Hall, which also houses the Wake Forest School of Divinity and the Department of Religion. The congregation worships in Wait Chapel, the university’s largest auditorium. Students from the School of Divinity have preached frequently and powerfully in the church.
When the church was founded, many of the members of the student body, faculty and administration were Baptist. Over the years the percentage of Baptists on campus has decreased significantly, and the church has looked increasingly to the community for its membership. Currently, Wake Forest Baptist Church has approximately 230 members and active friends, most of them from the community. As in many churches, however, attendance is less than the enrolled membership. The church is increasingly ecumenical, while still endorsing and practicing historic Baptist principles, freedoms, and traditions.
Wake Forest Baptist Church has been an innovator in local ministry. In 1962, two members were instrumental in founding the Winston-Salem Meals on Wheels ministry; several members were among the first group of servers. In the late 1960s the church helped establish the Association for the Benefit of Child Development, now called Imprints for Families. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the church conducted a kindergarten class for children with learning challenges.
Also during the 1990’s members founded a special mission group that provided home-cooked meals (cooked by members) to the AIDS care service. In 1998 a member founded and has since served as volunteer executive director of the Health and Wellness Clinic of the Triad Region—a monthly clinic for indigent patients. In 2002, a member cofounded and continues to serve as executive director of Authoring Action, which stimulates youth across the socioeconomic spectrum in developing their writing and speaking prowess. Also in 2002, members played a leading role in establishing C.H.A.N.G.E., a grassroots organization involving faith communities and neighborhood associations. In 2010, a member helped develop and is medical director of the Child Advocacy Center in an adjoining county; on referral from various agencies, it serves abused children. One member has very recently founded One to One Women Coaching Women, to assist single women and women veterans.
The ministers and members have been unafraid to confront controversial issues. In 1962, the church declared its membership open to all races—two months prior to the university trustees’ decision to admit non-white undergraduate students. In 1994, the church was presented the Whitney M. Young Award for “bridging the gaps in race relations” by the Winston-Salem Urban League. A year later the United Way of Forsyth County presented a special award to Wake Forest Baptist Church and its partner, First Baptist Church of Highland Avenue, for building “a better community through a variety of joint undertakings.”
Throughout the late 1980’s, 1990’s, and early 2000’s members worked on behalf Darryl Hunt, a 19 year old African American who was convicted of the brutal murder of a young white woman. The work ultimately resulted in his full exoneration and release from 19 years of wrongful imprisonment. One member who was active in the campaign for Hunt’s vindication wrote a widely acclaimed book about that long struggle for justice and faith.
Welcoming and Affirming:
In 2000, a same sex covenant service between two members of the church was celebrated in Wait Chapel, though it was not endorsed by the university. Because of its inclusive stand regarding the role of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons in the church, Wake Forest Baptist Church was removed from membership in the Pilot Mountain Baptist Association and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina; the church voluntarily left the Southern Baptist Convention. In 2005, the church received the Kaleidoscope Faith Community Award by PFLAG of Winston-Salem. From January 2011 to mid-2013, Wake Forest Baptist Church was probably unique among Baptist churches—at least in the USA–in having two lesbian senior pastors.
The church has found a home in the Alliance of Baptists and continues to offer a vibrant witness to Jesus Christ.