Nova Scotia·Q&A

New president of Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada breaking barriers

The first woman of colour to become president of Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada talks about the history of the church and its future.

Rev. Rhonda Britton is the first Black woman to serve as the organization's president

Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada announced Rev. Rhonda Britton, pastor of New Horizons Baptist Church, as its new president last week. (CBC)

The first woman of colour to become president of Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada says there's still a lot of work to be done to ensure churches are welcoming to everybody. 

At one time, Black people weren't allowed to take part in many aspects of the Baptist church and that racism led them to form their own churches, said Rev. Rhonda Britton, pastor of New Horizons Baptist Church in Halifax. 

Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada provides resources and support to member churches in Eastern Canada. Britton has held leadership positions before, including as vice-president, but said taking on the role of president is a major milestone for the organization. 

"We've only had six Black presidents, including me, and we've only had three female presidents, including me," she told CBC Radio's Information Morning. "So I'm the first intersection of the two, so it is historic in this historic age of Black women."

Britton spoke with host Portia Clark about what the role means to her and where she wants to take it. 

Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

How big of a deal is it to reach this day? What kind of journey has it been? 

Since I have been here in Nova Scotia, which is 18 plus years now, I have worked with the Canadian Baptists, that is our convention body. I made it my business when I got here to get involved and to understand what they are all about, and how is it that we, as member churches, participate.

I love the organization. I love the people there. I've served on the council for a number of years so when I was nominated to the vice-presidency, I happily accepted. It's big because if you think about the Maritime Baptist Convention, it's 175 years old and I'm the first Black female. 

I guess there was a time when Baptist churches, like the one that you're a pastor at New Horizons, they were separate from other Baptist churches, but that's part of the journey, too. 

I think that's what makes it even more meaningful is the history that we have. Black churches, historically Black churches in Nova Scotia or even in Atlantic Canada, and our white counterparts ... in the beginning, we all worshipped together, but Black people were not allowed to be active participants in the church in terms of, you know, holding offices and things like that. We had to sit in certain places because, you know, it's racial discrimination. It's a time when you stay in your place and we'll permit you to be here.

And so after putting up with that for a while, Black people decided to start their own churches, and so lots of our historically Black churches are born out of racism. When we established Black communities, especially here in Nova Scotia, the history I'm most familiar with, we worshipped separate and apart. And when you think about who Christians are supposed to be, that's absolutely contrary to what we understand God's desire for us is. 

Britton was the first woman to become pastor at New Horizons Baptist Church in Halifax. (Radio-Canada)

Do you think there's still work for Canadian Baptist churches in Atlantic Canada to do in terms of inclusion? 

Absolutely. In theory, churches are open to everyone. When I when I first came here, I was serving a church in New Glasgow and I was the only Black clergy person in New Glasgow. And so people would see me and they would say, 'I've always wanted to come to your church, but I wasn't sure if I could,' and that was amazing to me as a person coming from New York, New Jersey, and you can walk into whatever church you want to. There may be some churches where heads turn when you walk in, but you're certainly able to go there.

So people still very much have that attitude, even with New Horizons. People in the neighbourhood who are not Black see it as this Black church and that perhaps they're not welcome in this Black church. 

Clearly you want to send a different message. And what about for people who come from different sexual orientations, for example? 

All people are welcome. Our doors are open to everyone and we welcome everyone and we welcome them with enthusiasm and love. Because our belief is that the same grace, the same mercy, the same love that we receive from God, we are to share with everyone else and so we try to practise that as best we can. 

What does the job of president involve? 

If you compare it to the secular world, it's probably like being the chair of the board of directors of some organization, right? We have a governing board and then we have our actual operational staff. We operate in the same way in that policy is set and we try to make sure that we are adhering to it. We work with our partner organizations … to make sure that we are moving in the direction of, first and foremost, getting the gospel out there, right? Making sure that our churches are thriving, and making sure that we are raising up leaders for these churches in this day and age when the church does not enjoy the same kind of popularity and sentimental place in the hearts of people as it once did when it was the centre of community. 

We have to work harder to connect younger generations to the church and then hopefully they have enough care for the church that they would want to rise up and be leaders in the church, so we focus a lot on that.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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With files from CBC's Information Morning