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How a forgotten hat led him to preach at MLK's pulpit

Senior Pastor Reverend Willie Bodrick poses for a portrait in the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. Bodrick is an alumnus of the Northeastern University School of Law. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

In 1951, Martin Luther King Jr. traveled north from his home in Atlanta to attend Boston University, a pursuit that eventually led him to the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, where he preached and worshiped while completing his theology degree. 

Seventy years later, the Rev. Willie Bodrick II finds himself treading a parallel path—after attending Georgetown University, Harvard Divinity School, and the Northeastern School of Law, the Atlanta native is now the fourteenth senior pastor of the historic Twelfth Baptist Church. 

“It’s surreal,” Bodrick says. “Growing up in Atlanta, the figure of Dr. King is instilled in you from youth. Hopefully, I’m continuing the legacy that my forefathers and foremothers have laid out for me so that we may continue to serve this community.” 

Bodrick became the senior pastor at the historic Roxbury church in 2021, a year after he completed his law degree at Northeastern.     

Martin Luther King Jr. preached at Roxbury's Twelfth Baptist Church in the 1950's. Photographs and paintings of him hang in the walls of the current location at 160 Warren Street. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Stepping into the role during a pandemic was no small feat for Bodrick. “This has been one of the hardest times in modern history,” he says, especially for Black communities like the one he serves in Roxbury, in which people have suffered disproportionately. (Black Bostonians make up 25 percent of the population, but they account for 33 percent of the city’s total COVID-19 deaths.) 

In response to the crisis, Bodrick and his colleagues have helped vaccinate over 2,500 people through a vaccine clinic they established at the church. Additionally, the congregation has donated $250,000 to community members facing unemployment and food insecurity since the pandemic began. 

Reverend Willie Bodrick, Senior Pastor of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, poses for a portrait. Bodrick is an alumnus of the Northeastern University School of Law. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Bodrick says he was introduced to the Twelfth Baptist Church by a miracle about a decade ago during a class at Harvard. During the class, Bodrick delivered a sermon, and unbeknownst to him, the church’s then-pastor, Rev. Arthur T. Gerald, Jr., was in the audience. 

Worried he would get a parking ticket, Bodrick rushed out when the class ended to move his car. He didn’t get a parking ticket, but in his haste, he left his hat in the classroom. 

“I ran back to get my hat, and by the grace of God, the pastor was still there,” he says. “We started talking, and he asked me if I wanted to come to preach at the church one Sunday for a youth service.” He’s been a part of the Twelfth Baptist Church ever since. 

After graduating from Harvard, Bodrick worked in Attorney General Maura Healey’s office as a community-outreach coordinator while working part-time at the Twelfth Baptist Church.   

“I’m so grateful for her mentorship and for that opportunity to get to know Massachusetts in a new way,” he says. Eventually, Healey encouraged Bodrick to attend her alma mater, Northeastern’s School of Law. 

Martin Luther King Jr. preached at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church in the 1950’s. Photographs and paintings of him hang in the walls of the current location at 160 Warren Street. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“While working at the attorney general’s office, I learned that the law is a tool and a language that touches everything,” he says. “I realized that there were limitations to the kind of work I could do in the Black community if I wasn’t equipped with a legal education.” 

Bodrick said he uses the skills he learned at Northeastern to better understand corporate structures and economic development, systems he believes are essential to the well-being of Black and brown communities. 

“The biggest issue we’re facing in the Roxbury community is the wealth gap,” he says. A well-known study from 2015 found that the median net worth for white families in Greater Boston was a quarter-million dollars. For Black families, it was just $8.

“I want to be a part of the force working toward greater equity and closing those wealth gaps,” he says.  

The year 2021 was a hard one for many of the people in his congregation. But in some ways, Bodrick says, it was also an exciting year of growth and change. 

Even though the pandemic forced the church to reduce capacity for in-person services, Bodrick says the congregation has grown in recent months with hundreds more people tuning in to virtual services. Plus, one of the members of his congregation, City Councilor Kim Janey, became the first Black mayor of Boston after former mayor Martin Walsh was confirmed as President Joe Biden’s secretary of labor. 

Bodrick has high hopes for this new year. Over the Christmas season, he said the church donated another $120,000 to community members in need. 

“I’m really proud of everything we’ve accomplished in my first year at the Twelfth Baptist Church,” he says. “I’m looking forward to continuing this work, to continue providing for the community and supporting our families in the coming years.” 

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