History

No one of us has ever been in a church exactly like Covenant Baptist Church…”        Pastor H. Wesley Wiley, June 26, 1977

Covenant Baptist UCC– formerly Covenant Baptist Church– has a unique history of steadfast service and commitment to a constantly changing community. The history of the church, located East of the Anacostia river in the nation’s capital, can be divided into four parts: (1) an all-white beginning; (2) a racial transition; (3) a socio-economic transition; and, (4) a new paradigm for a new day. 

Founded in 1945, months after World War II, Covenant began as an all-white congregation aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention. The first services were held at 126 Yuma Street, SE. By 1947, the congregation was incorporated and had grown to the extent that they held worship services in a now-demolished cinema house, the Atlantic Theater.  

Covenant grew as the neighborhood of Bellevue/ Congress Heights developed as a post-war haven for mainly young families of white war veterans. The church moved to its present location in 1950 with the completion and dedication of the educational building (“The School”, still in use by community education projects), where the early congregation worshipped until the present sanctuary and additional education space were dedicated in 1959.

Between 1945 and 1968, Covenant was served by four Southern Baptist pastors– Rev. Harry How (1945-1947),  Rev. Frank L. Squires (1947-1960), Rev. Roy L. Snell (1960-1963), and Rev. Moncrief Jordan (1963-1968). The membership of Covenant peaked in 1965, but rapidly declined thereafter due to “white flight” and the changing racial makeup of the neighborhood. Finally, in 1968, the fourth pastor resigned because the dwindling membership could no longer pay or otherwise support a pastor. 

In the midst of racial tension began Covenant’s racial transition in 1969. The congregation called the Rev. Dr. Herley Wesley Wiley (b. 1914) as pastor, making him the first African American called as senior pastor of a predominantly white congregation in the nation’s capital. By then, the church’s membership had dwindled to 85 and the church reserves had $84.10 left. 

Hailing from a family of preachers and possessing many years of pastoral experience in North Carolina and D.C., Dr. H. Wesley Wiley accepted the church’s call at a tremendous sacrifice because he saw it as an opportunity to save the church for the community. He continued his role as Director of Cooperative Ministries with the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention while serving Covenant. With decades of Civil Rights activism behind him, he was a charter member of the Progressive National Baptist Convention in 1961 and participated in the first Poor People’s campaign in 1968.

 
Though initially receiving no salary and only a small travel allowance, Dr. H. Wesley Wiley oversaw the swift transition of Covenant from a predominantly white to a predominantly black congregation. Under his visionary leadership, the church’s membership grew and became multicultural and intergenerational. An early childhood school was established as well as a gospel choir, and “the church on the hill” became a gathering place for the growing African American community. Many of the remaining white members stayed as well, the last of that flagship congregation being Sis. Hilda O’Connor, who is still of blessed memory to all who knew her.
 

Covenant was one of the first Baptist churches in the D.C. area to ordain women, first as deacons and later into the Gospel ministry. For these actions, the church and pastor were dismissed from membership in the Baptist Minister’s Conference of D.C. and Vicinity.

 

In 1976, Covenant helped organize the first Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade in D.C. and rallied for the MLK federal holiday until it became so in 1984. For many years, the church was a hub for the parade, even welcoming Stevie Wonder as a grand marshal in January 1980. Wonder publicly premiered his now-iconic song “Happy Birthday” in the sanctuary before the album was released later that year. We continue to serve on the MLKDC committee, and the MLK citywide service is held here.

Dr. H. Wesley Wiley retired in 1984 and was honored with the title of Pastor Emeritus. He and our former First Lady, Mrs. Doris Wiley, continued to serve the church faithfully as members until their passing from time into eternity, both in 2009.

 

In 1985, Rev. Dr. Dennis Wayne Wiley (previously Youth Minister and Director of Music) became the sixth pastor of Covenant Baptist Church. As his father had led the church during a period of racial transition, it was the son’s calling to shepherd the church during a period of socio-economic transition. And, whereas the father led the church out of the turbulent sixties, his son would lead the church into the next millennium.

An alumnus of Harvard University and Union Theological Seminary (a Ph.D student of James Cone) with a passion for pastoral ministry, Dr. Dennis W. Wiley successfully bridged the gap between the church and the academy while effectively balancing the church’s priestly and prophetic responsibilities. He also sought to reinforce and broaden the church’s reputation as a beacon of inclusiveness and liberation as well as a hub for theological exploration by scholars and students alike. His numerous accomplishments include the retirement of the first church mortgage, the inclusion of women at every level of church leadership, the founding of the ChristAfrican Institute and the Covenant Full Potential Development Center, a 501(c)(3) community development corporation. 

Dr. Dennis Wiley led the church to its first full renovation since 1959, including designing the now-iconic stained glass windows in the sanctuary with architect Maurice Jenkins. We rededicated the campus to the glory of God with a weekend of events, culminating with the dedication service on September 30, 2001, the great Womanist theologian Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Grant was the dedication preacher.

Rev. Dr. Christine Yvonne Wiley was the first woman ordained into the ministry at Covenant in 1986, and served as Assistant Pastor alongside her husband. In 2004, “A New Paradigm for a New Day” began when the congregation called Rev. Drs. Dennis and Christine Wiley to serve as co-pastors. This bold and unprecedented step made Covenant the first Black Baptist congregation in the Washington metropolitan area to call a husband-and-wife team to serve together as pastors, sharing equal authority and responsibility.

As the seventh pastor of Covenant, Dr. Christine (known affectionately as “Pastor Chris”) complemented her husband with a wealth of gifts and talents in a number of areas, including pastoral care and counseling, Christian education, community outreach, ministerial mentoring, staff supervision, and creative worship. Together, the Wileys modeled the effectiveness of partnership and servanthood between men and women in ministry. The Wileys are spiritual parents to dozens of clergy throughout the nation, and many churches locally and nationally have been planted out of their leadership.

Since the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Covenant’s ministry has reached out to those whom most churches have pushed away and condemned. Covenant was pivotal in the development of the Max Robinson Center, a local clinic for survivors of HIV/AIDS. After many years of outreach to the LGBTQ+ community, in 2008 the congregation voted to permit equal marriage, becoming one of the first Black Baptist congregations in the country to collectively affirm such a decision. Many have left Covenant over controversal decisions, whether it was the role of women in leadership or on LGBTQ+ relationships. Nevertheless, Covenant persists in being an open and affirming safe space for all of God’s children.

Covenant left the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s. Today, we are in partnership with the American Baptist Churches USA, the Alliance of Baptists and, since 2010, the United Church of Christ.

On October 31, 2017, after over 30 years of service, Rev. Drs. Dennis and Christine Wiley retired as senior pastors. From November 1, 2017 until March 30, 2020, Rev. Dr. Alice B. Greene served as Interim Minister. Devoted to a ministry of nurturing, teaching, and inspiring Christian disciples, Dr. Greene led the congregation through the transition period as the congregation prepared to select, call, and install a permanent, settled pastor.

On October 27, 2019, the congregation called the Rev. William Thomas Young IV to be the eighth pastor of Covenant Baptist UCC. Rev. Young began his service to the congregation on April 1, 2020. Amidst a global pandemic and quarantine in Scotland, Rev. Young delivered his first sermon as Pastor-Elect via video conference on Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020.

After a period in observance of protocols during the COVID pandemic, aided well by our Health Ministry, Covenant re-opened our church campus for worship on October 3, 2021, and Pastor Young was duly installed on October 10, 2021.

Throughout the various transitions reflected above, one thing has remained constant: Covenant’s commitment to a ministry of liberation and transformation in an ever changing world. This radical commitment is reflected in the vision statement recited every Sunday morning:

“Affirming our African heritage, our vision is to build an inclusive body 

of biblical believers who continue to grow in Christ 

as we love, serve, and fellowship with the community and each other.”