Lauri Smalls, first female pastor at Union Baptist Church in New Bedford


NEW BEDFORD – Even after its founding 127 years ago, Union Baptist Church on Court Street has accomplished a first.

Reverend Lauri Smalls recently became the first female pastor elected to lead the church.

“It’s a huge honor,” said Smalls, 57. “The church is beautiful and I am so happy to be able to carry on its traditions.”

She has been the church’s pastor-elect since October 2021 and was officially installed as pastor on May 14.

“Settlement services would normally be done in church,” she said, “but I have a big family and lots of friends.”

Union Baptist, a modest building with its aging clapboard exterior, hasn’t changed much over the decades and comfortably fits its congregation of about 100 people. Nathaniel Cannon Smith, professionally known as Nat. C. Smith, designed the building in 1899. The church was formed from two African-American congregations that had separated years earlier. The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

After the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Smalls said church attendance dropped to 25 and then to nine.

“But we see them coming back,” Smalls said.

Wednesday Bible study has not yet returned to in-person meetings at the church, so they are connecting online via Zoom.

Continuing church outreach programs is something Smalls looks forward to, and she has spoken of wanting to engage with various faith denominations in New Bedford to do a citywide outreach program.

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Smalls said the church’s mission is to have a “passion for God and compassion for people.”

She began to introduce herself more formally to the community by participating in church missionary work in the city. She can be found at the Salvation Army on the third Saturday of the month to help distribute food, fresh fruits and vegetables to those in need. She also has regular church office hours from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to meet with those seeking guidance.

From Chicago to Newport

Smalls recalls the night her mother, Elaine, packed her up with her siblings, leaving life in Chicago behind and traveling by train to Newport, Rhode Island, where “my grandparents took us in “.

It was in Newport at the age of 7 that Smalls began attending Community Baptist Church, known at the time as Mt. Olivet Baptist Church.

“I’ve really been there all my life,” Smalls said before coming to Union Baptist in 2021 as an elected pastor. While at Community Baptist, Smalls became a licensed and ordained pastor under the Reverend Vincent L. Thompson Jr.

It was Thompson who led Smalls’ installation ceremony as Union Baptist pastor.

Smalls said she had become acquainted with Union Baptist about 15 years earlier, when she was under Reverend Steve Taylor and was part of the regional network of Baptist churches.

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The Ministry of Music and Its Importance to the Church

Hand clapping, shouts of “Hallelujah” and “Praise be to God” from the choir lift the spirits and hope of Union Baptist worshipers each Sunday. Smalls herself joins in singing and praising God. She fondly remembers singing with her late sister, Donna, at Community Baptist when they were younger.

“They let me hang out with them, so that’s pretty cool,” she says of the Union Baptist Sanctuary Choir.

The church also has a men’s choir, which Smalls says she hopes to see grow with more members.

Reverend Lauri Smalls is the new minister of the Union Baptist Church on Court Street in New Bedford

Rebuilding during a pandemic

COVID-19 has hit the church hard and Smalls said it will take some time to get worshipers back into the building, but she is confident it will happen.

And she does not wait for the faithful to return to church alone.

She goes to town to look for them.

“We will focus on raising awareness,” she said, stressing the importance of revitalizing the church’s youth groups. And it’s something she knows very well.

Smalls is executive director of the Turning the Corner residential treatment program at Jammat Housing and Community Development Corp. The program provides services to adolescents and young men ages 12-21 in Rhode Island with behavioral issues. Incorporated in 1992, Jammat is a community-run 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation located in Providence. It serves individuals and families throughout Rhode Island with programs operating in the cities of Providence, Warwick and Pawtucket, according to its website.

Smalls credits her mother and stepfather, Robert Lewis, for giving her and her siblings a wonderful life and passing on to her the legacy of working hard to help others in need.

Smalls said she hopes to continue to make Union Baptist Church a place for those who are “seeking a relationship with God and a place to call home.”

A graduate of Virginia University of Lynchburg, Temple University in Philadelphia, and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Smalls lives in Providence. She has two children, Robert, 33, and Lauren, 34.

Standard-Times digital producer Linda Roy can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @LindaRoy_TBS. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to the Standard-Times.


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