Green Bay congregation carries Underground Railroad legacy forward

Feb. 1 marks the start of Black History Month, a time set aside each year to remember the myriad contributions, and the existential struggles, of Black Americans since Africans arrived in North America in the early 17th century.

For Union Congregational UCC in Green Bay, however, every day provides an opportunity to reflect on Black history: The church is listed on the National Network to Freedom, a database of sites with links to the Underground Railroad that is maintained by the National Park Service.

“The congregation is incredibly proud of this story,” says the Rev. Bridget Flad Daniels, Union’s senior pastor. “It serves as an inspiration and a touchstone for all of the justice work our church continues to do. It’s a story we lift up regularly when we are discerning why this church exists, what our mission is.” In 2020, the congregation’s governing body, called Common Ministry, asked that the meeting agendas of all ministries include the question “How does the work this ministry is doing impact Union’s racial and social justice work?”

“Having that question at the top of every agenda – stewardship or worship or education – is a through line to the Underground Railroad and to being part of that important, lifesaving justice work,” Flad Daniels said.

Founded in 1836 as First Presbyterian Church, the congregation’s early members included Maria Ghant, who arrived in Green Bay as an enslaved woman, says Victoria Tashjian, a history professor at St. Norbert College who has researched the region’s racial history and who wrote Union’s application to the National Network to Freedom. “The deeply abolitionist church minister informed Miss Ghant that in Wisconsin she was free,” Tashjian wrote in an email. Her incensed owners left First Presbyterian, Tashjian said, and Ghant herself joined the congregation in 1839.

A seminal moment occurred around 1855, according to a history of the congregation, “God’s Love in Action 1836-1955,” written by Ethel Cady. That’s when a family of escaped slaves arrived in Green Bay. The man and his children had found refuge with one of the region’s Indigenous tribes but fled when their pursuers discovered their whereabouts. Church members hid the family in the belfry until a steamer arrived to transport them to “her Majesty’s land of Freedom” – Canada.

First Presbyterian became Union Congregational in 1899. In 1929, the congregation moved about six blocks after a fire destroyed the original building. A sign identifying the congregation’s historic status stands outside the current church.

Union’s commitment to justice work is evident in a variety of outreach ministries that include the Ecumenical Partnership for Housing, which now has more than 35 houses in which families experiencing homelessness can life for up to two years while receiving wrap-around services, and a feeding ministry that serves homeless shelters. Union members also were instrumental in bringing Habitat for Humanity to Green Bay.

Even seemingly routine operational decisions are made with justice in mind. When the congregation needed to hire a cleaning company after the death of the church custodian, Flad Daniels interviewed three potential vendors.

“I recommended hiring the one that was minority owned and paid a living wage,” she said. “It was another through line.”

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