From 1857 – 1900s
Riverside Baptist Church began as a Sunday school led by a young Virginian, Chastain Clarke Meador, who on July 26, 1857, became the first pastor of 24 charter members of the Island Baptist Church. Located on D Street, between 4 1/2 and 6th Streets S.W., its first home was in a wooden structure moved from another church site. During the Civil War, financial difficulties forced Rev. Meador to open a hardware store with his brother-in-law to supplement his meager salary. His Confederate sympathies caused a faction of the people to ask for his resignation, which the majority refused. The church and the Union survived, and in October 1866, it is recorded that a revival of religion commenced in the church which led to a long-continuing series of daily meetings, during which over 150 persons professed conversion, 124 of whom united with the church by baptism. The membership could no longer be accommodated, so a new brick structure was built in 1869, and the church was renamed Fifth Baptist. A period of growth through evangelism, visitation, teaching and training of leaders, and a ministry of social concerns marked the last third of the century. The church began a city mission and undertook the support of a foreign missionary. The church in the 1880s was disturbed by the smoke, coal, dust, and noise of trains, due to the construction of a roundhouse near the church.
From 1902 – 1960
A young South Carolina lawyer and member of the church, Joseph James Darlington, brought a suit against the railroad and took the case to three District of Columbia courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won his case. The judgments against the railroad provided the money for relocation to 6 1/2 and E Streets where a new church was dedicated in 1902. Mr. Darlington later married the pastor’s daughter, Elizabeth. The growth of the church during Dr. Meador’s 47-year ministry was continued by pastors Bruner, Briggs, Hall and Coburn, who in the first half of the 20th century, emphasized missionary training, Sunday school, community service and visitation. Rev. Porter Harrison led the church from 1953 to 1965. At one time, Fifth Baptist had the second largest Sunday school in the city, with a membership in 1957 of 605.On the 100th anniversary of its founding, Fifth Baptist was forced to move again. The Redevelopment Land Agency bought the old site for half a million dollars and a new building was built at 7th Street and Maine Avenue. Rev. Harrison and his wife, Rosalie, remained caring members of the church, with Rosalie is singing in the choir. The organ from Fifth Baptist was rebuilt and installed in the new sanctuary. While the church was being built, the congregation worshipped in Hogate’s Restaurant. Because of the location, the name was changed to Riverside Baptist. Only a handful of members survived the urban redevelopment of the early 1960s and made the transition to Riverside.
From 1960s – 1980s
As associate minister of National Memorial Baptist Church , Rev. Frank Foster, was called as the new minister in 1971. At the time of the rioting accompanying the death of Martin Luther King three years earlier, Frank had walked the streets, ministering to those who lost homes and businesses. As the new minister of Riverside in 1971, he called the members to open wide the doors to all who might come. And many came to be new members, creating a truly bi-racial congregation worshipping God together. Frank and Sara Foster’s untimely death in a plane crash in May 1972 was a traumatic experience for the church. In the midst of this tragedy, the members determined to continue the ministry Frank had begun.
The deacons divided the responsibilities of the church among their number, and the Honorable John H. Buchanan, Congressman from Alabama and a deacon in the church, served as interim minister until the coming of Rev. Robert Troutman in 1973. New directions and response to the changing needs of our city marked Rev. Troutman’s fourteen year ministry. As a leader in ecumenical cooperation, he led other Southwest ministers in the organization or M.U.S.C.L.E. (Ministers United to Support Community Life Endeavors), an organization which worked to provide low cost housing. He led the congregation to become a member of the Progressive Baptist Convention in recognition of an integrated membership. The church facilities were renovated, creating better spaces for changing needs. Youth ministry was stressed through programs such as “Our Place,” a weekly program of drama, recreation, and study, and the formation of two children’s choirs which met weekly. There were frequent events, which brought out the gifts of each member, such as Arts Festivals, talent shows, musical productions for adults and children, and church-wide retreats. Troutman’s sermons provided fresh theological insights into the relationship of the scriptures to contemporary world situations. Members participated in a variety of adult Sunday school classes and evening forums on contemporary issues. Associate Minister, David Jordan, who served from 1986 to 1989, established a tutoring program, reaching out to area students. Riverside members participated in Martha’s table and other programs that provided food and clothing to the needy. Rev. Troutman encouraged participation in the larger world community, not only through his preaching but also by events such as “Invitation to Life,” which featured such speakers as Coretta Scott King and Max Cleland. Several trips to Russia by the pastor and other members resulted in active participation by many in the Baptist Peace Fellowship.
From late 1980s – present
John Buchanan, as Interim Minister, and Rev. David Jordan provided leadership in the period before Rev. William Smith became pastor in 1988. Dr. Smith’s optimistic outlook toward our inner city service and ministry encourage an expanding tutoring program and ministry to the families involved. Dr. Smith also began a mid-week Bible Study, reaching out to bring in new members from the community.
After three years, William Smith moved on to another church and Riverside found itself in transition once again. It faced a new social issue, that of inclusivity of homosexuals. Dr. Michael Bledsoe answered Riverside’s call in February 1992. In that same year, Riverside voted to disassociate itself from the Southern Baptist Convention and to reaffirm its relationship to the D. C. Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Churches, USA and as it did this, it made a declaration that it would be welcoming of all people, including gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Pastor Bledsoe’s ministry was immediately marked by scholarship and creativity in preaching. He sought to expand the church’s outreach with the establishment of an early Sunday service offering a contemporary worship experience. His role as Adjunct Professor of World Religions and Philosophy of Religion at Howard University School of Divinity created valuable new ministries for Riverside. A series of his students have come to Riverside as ministerial interns, serving in a variety of ways. Interns have preached for the early service and the 11:00 a.m. as well. Riverside has ordained two of the students, Wanda Henry, and Linda DeLaine to the gospel ministry and has licensed Robin Williams Evans to preach. All three serve the church as Associate Ministers. They have been joined by Roland Weah, a student from Liberia who has sought to extend ministry amongst African nationals. In fact, Riverside has had a wonderful contingent of folks worship with us from Nigeria, Cameroon, Liberia and South Africa.
Outreach to youth has been accomplished via a Friday Film Night ministry to children and teens in the Southwest community, supported by Juanita Yates and led by Linda and Robin. Women have been organized by Rev. Henry for mission projects ranging from back-to-school supplies to Christmas gifts for children who have a parent in prison. A pre-school took up residence in the church basement which had stood largely empty for years. A partnership to get children up and reading by the time they enter First Grade has meant an enrollment of over 20 children, many of whom are challenged by socio-economic factors in the community. Dr. Jim Ball is also a partner minister, reaching out to Christians to be engaged with ecological issues and to match their love of God with a love for the created order through his National Evangelical Environmental Network. Jim was recently named as one of “25 Warriors and Heroes” who are working to sound the alarm about climate change by Rolling Stone Magazine. These partnership ministries, combined with the ministries of our associate ministers, extend the ministry and mission of Riverside outward into the world at large.
Pastor Bledsoe celebrated 25 years as pastor in February 2017 and continued to lead the church into a vibrant future, as a new church building was built on the same corner of 7th & Maine Ave, SW as a part of the redevelopment of the Wharf in southwest Washington DC. Our church is looking forward with hope and expectation for a bright future in the service of our Lord.