Relationship: It’s Complicated.

Reflections on the changing relationship between the leaders of Macedonia Baptist Church in Bethesda and the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

From David Ward’s conversations with Rev. Nancy Ladd, Rev. Amanda Weatherspoon, Rev. Dr. Segun Adebayo and Dr. Marsha Coleman Adebayo

If there were ever an opportunity to build a sense of beloved community between the last surviving Black church in Bethesda and the liberal, nearly all-white River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, less than two miles north on River Road, you’d think it would be a no-brainer.

About seven years ago, River Road’s Rev. Nancy Ladd made a call on the Rev. Dr. Segun Adebayo and his wife, the social justice director at Macedonia Baptist Church, Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, to see if they’d like to talk together about a relationship. And so they met, together with Macedonia’s Board Chair, longtime MBC member Harvey Matthews, to explore how River Road could help reclaim the cemetery where the Black Community of Bethesda buried their dead.

During the last century, the segregationist Chevy Chase Land Co. had destroyed the Black community, aided and abetted by Montgomery County’s Parks & Planning Commission. They removed the community where Harvey Matthews grew up and replaced it with  developments such as Kenmore, which maintained racial covenants to keep Blacks out. All they left was Macedonia Baptist Church, facing the land across River Road, where the Black Community had buried their dead since the Civil War.

Segun and Marsha were in the early stages of building the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition in order to reclaim the burial ground for the Black Community, when Nancy met with them. At first, River Road merely provided its copy machine to produce leaflets for BACC’s protest demonstrations on River Road, as well as congregants who joined those demonstrations. In the early stages of their relationship, Nancy stood behind Marsha and Segun’s focus on saving the broadest swath of the burial ground, what they called  “New Moses.”

But it didn’t take long before BACC asked her to concentrate on the cemetery land owned by the County’s Housing Opportunities Commission. They wanted her to help set up a mediation with HOC about how to commemorate the African ancestors buried in the portion of Moses Cemetery on HOC property. But HOC’s president, Stacey Span, managed to divide and conquer, turning BACC and members of the county’s most influential proponent of affordable housing, Action In Montgomery, against each other.  Within two years, the mediation fell apart.

That animosity between some supporters of AIM in the River Road Congregation and members of BACC continues to this day, despite Segun’s insistence that “We’ve always been willing to work on affordable housing in Westbard.” And so, we have two organizations, both working to enhance Black liberation, separately.

Why not together? That’s the question Nancy continues to ask: ”Why do we have to continue pitting affordable housing advocates against the historical African Community, or vice versa?” Nancy asks. “Isn’t there some way to cut the Gordian knot and end the polarization between affordable housing advocates and descendants of Bethesda’s African community, especially since both are battling the crimes of 158 years of Jim Crow segregation?”

After Span scuttled the attempted mediation, Nancy started writing her first book, After the Good News, and continued working on other social justice issues as she tended her congregation. And then, three years ago, she brought in Rev. Amanda Weatherspoon to River Road to focus on social justice work. Coming from a Black community herself, Amanda embraces the Black Liberation theology spawned by the Black Power Movement. She and Nancy say they began feeling a sense of acute contradiction by having River Road congregants show such strong support for Black Lives Matter on the corner of River Road and Whittier Boulevard, while they remain so far removed from the Black Liberation tradition embodied by BACC and Macedonia Baptist, less than two miles down River Road in Westbard.

As a result, Amanda began building a relationship with Marsha and Segun.  Within a month, “things started to move fast,” according to Nancy. Amanda  spoke to appreciative members of the River Road community at a Sunday service last December, and let Marsha – who also spoke at the service – know that River Road was ready to provide “a institutional measure of support” to Macedonia and BACC which they had not experienced since the days when Nancy first worked with them.

Following that service, Amanda asked each member of River Road to write to county, state, and national leaders to support BACC, and asked River Roaders to participate in a phone-call campaign. River Road also offered its fellowship hall to BACC so they could gather as a group, as they tried to get HOC and the County Parks & Planning Commission to meet on Zoom to discuss transferring the cemetery land to Macedonia and BACC. In the end, like Stacey Stan and HOC, both commissions scuttled the discussion.

As expected, several members of RRUUC have asked River Road to refuse to work with BACC. On the other hand Amanda and I may be discussing BACC with congregants who support AIM in the near future.

And so, we’ve come full circle since Nancy tried to set up a mediation – and a bit more since she first worked with Marsha and Segun to set up a mediation with HOC that might have led to HOC transferring land to Macedonia and BACC. Of course, things have become much more complicated. Now, HOC doesn’t even want the land Span defended so tenaciously. And he now works for a developer. HOC is trying to sell the property. And if it does, the buyer will be free to eliminate some of the largest affordable housing inventory in the county, so that they can replace it with much more expensive (read: profitable) housing or commercial development. A developer has already offered $50 million to buy it. How will Action In Montgomery and other affordable housing advocates stop such a sale?

They don’t have to. Fortunately, at least for now, BACC has stopped HOC from selling the Westwood property. Their lawyers asked Circuit Court Judge Karla Smith to enforce a never before used state law that prevents the sale of any land that has contained a cemetery – without reaching an agreement with members of the community – in this case the Black Community, represented by Macedonia Baptist and BACC, whose ancestors have been buried there. Meanwhile, as its affordable housing residents sit in limbo, HOC’s Westwood Towers deteriorates.

But what if BAAC agreed to the sale: as long as HOC transfers the portion of the property that contains cemetery land to BACC and agrees that the rest of the land must continue to be dedicated to affordable housing? Could AIM, along with other affordable housing advocates and Montgomery County, work together with BACC to make that happen?

Meanwhile, Nancy, who is a strong supporter of AIM, and Amanda are managing apparently conflicting expectations within River Road in order to be helpful to AIM and BACC. Which only proves that building creative, powerful relationships really are complicated.

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