Pastor helps Halifax move beyond history of racism and violence

For Pastor Rhonda Britton, being the leader of a spiritual community means addressing past wrongs and present crises with hope, and the determination to bring about a better future.
Dr. Rhonda Britton, Pastor of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax. (CBC)

When Pastor Rhonda Britton began her work as pastor of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax, she knew it came with more responsibility than a weekly sermon. The church has been a place of worship for Halifax's African-Nova Scotian community for 185 years.  During that time, it has been a cornerstone for the civil rights movement in the city, and a witness to a long history of racism. 

It's a painful past.  And the present carries a weight of its own.  Last year, seven black men, most under the age of 30, were killed in Halifax, making up more than half of the city's homicides. Members of Halifax's black community felt that local officials and law enforcement were not adequately responding to what Pastor Britton called a "state of emergency" in the African-Nova Scotian community. She says in these times of violence and tension, her role must extend beyond spiritual guidance, to "build bridges" between the black community and Halifax officials.  

Pastor Britton feels that taking the conversations surrounding race and discrimination into a church introduces a thoughtful, dignified element into an already tense relationship.

"You're able to address a person's belief," she says.  "Whatever their faith is, and whatever the values are of that faith because most of us whether we are Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, or Sikh, we have these basic values about the worth of human beings, treating people with respect and dignity."

Pastor Rhonda Britton, at a demonstration in Halifax in 2014. (courtesy Pastor Britton)

Rhonda Britton received the call to become a Pastor while she was still in her teens.  At that time, there were no female Pastors in the Baptist denomination, and she'd shown an aptitude for working with computers, so she put the call on the 'back burner' for a while.  But a call is a call; and for the past ten years, she has been living her vocation at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. 

As part of that calling, Pastor Britton is also leading the charge to re-name the congregation. The street and church are named after Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis. He is responsible for the so-called "scalp tax" which offered a cash reward for killing a Mi'kmaq person; a member of Nova Scotia's Indigenous population. Recently Halifax city council voted to create a panel to discuss Cornwallis' legacy and his place in modern Halifax.

Pastor Britton says that her community has worked closely with the Mi'kmaq, and that both are groups often maligned and cast aside by city officials. By changing the name of the church, Britton says they are supporting their Mi'kmaq allies.

"Although we can't go back and change history, we don't have to perpetuate the history by having that as the name of our church, because that's not what we stand for."

Click LISTEN above to hear Pastor Rhonda Britton in conversation with Mary Hynes.