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Neighborhood Churches and Neighbors Often at Odds; Changing Demographics the Cause

Accompanying image can be viewed on page 1 of the May issue 2017 issue pdf; others posted on the jump page

By Larry Ray*

James: I live on Capitol Hill. We have a lot of churches. Do they assist our neighborhood? No. They arrive on Sunday mornings, illegally park — even blocking in neighbors’ cars — and then return to Maryland late Sunday.

Ane: I have served several terms as Neighborhood Commissioner and have implored nearby churches to assist us, but alas — they do illegal parking, even in front of fire hydrants and wheelchair ramps.

Brad: I think the churches neighborhood assistance is out of sync with the changing neighborhood. In fact their food bank and clothing services attract non-neighbors to our community.

Quavadus: I love the church buildings in my neighborhood. The structures are so beautiful. The churches do seem to be out of [touch with how] . . . neighborhood [is changing]. Why are they fighting bike lanes?

Neighborhoods are greatly changing. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute listed three DC zip codes in the top 20 fastest gentrifying neighborhoods: 20001, which includes Mt. Vernon Square and much of the eastern side of Shaw; 20005, which includes Logan Circle, 14th & U Streets area; and 20010, which includes Columbia Heights. lists DC as number two in its list of the top 10 gentrifying U.S. cities. Also, in an article posted in about the U.S. cities that are gentrifying the fastest, Washington is included.

When church leaders are asked about their neighborhood contributions, they usually mention food and clothing banks. In contrast, interviewed neighbors would like churches to assist in neighborhood clean-up’s, park adoption, serving as a community center, promoting bike lanes, even making available any extra space on their grounds for neighborhood gardening or sponsoring farmers’ markets.

A persistent and across neighborhoods gripe has to do with increasing clashes over bike lanes between churches and neighbors who desire them.

Examples include Metropolitan AME Church on the 1500 block of M Street or several along 6th Street, NW north of Rhode Island Avenue that are fighting against the creation of a 6th Street, NW bike lane. The churches cite “religious freedom,” but the real issue seems to be Sunday parking.

Churches dramatically affect neighborhoods. It is estimated that there are approximately 655 churches in DC. In the Columbia Heights area there are approximately 23; in the Dupont Circle and Dupont East area, approximately 29. The ChurchAngel site lists 40 different types of churches including 211-Baptist; 29, Episcopal; and 74, non-denominational. Some neighbors think that DC has an inordinate number of churches but according to ChurchAngel there are 655 churches in Columbus, Ohio — a city of similar size population.

Conversely, gentrifying neighborhoods can dramatically affect long-established churches like the former Mt. Rona Missionary Baptist Church 13th and Monroe Streets, NW which was purchased by a developer who just broke ground a month ago, on on April 14th. (This was one of several churches singled out by The InTowner in a September 2015 report.

By some estimates, DC loses $42 million in annual property tax revenue due to the fact that these churches are tax exempt. These tax breaks have always been for the purpose of avoiding any impediments to ensuring Constitutionally protected religious freedom. At the same time, such exemptions have also given high expectations of churches’ contributing in meanigful ways to the needs of their communities.

Thomas L. Johnson who participates on the question and answer site asserts, “Most churches are cogs of the community. I don’t know how your city operates but in mine the churches are on the front lines, serving meals, operating food shelves, hosting Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings, organizing kids clubs, serving as polling places, building housing, sponsoring immigrants and being the first responders (Salvation Army) when there is a disaster.”

The June 9, 2011 issue of Flourish Magazine featured an article titled, “Your Neighborhood is a Mission Field: Churches and the Neighborly Arts,” which spoke of “concentric circles of community” through which churches can be of service in their neighborhoods. First, the church must service their congregation, then the immediate neighborhood, the city, the country and then the world.

Throughout the neighborhoods which are the focus of InTowner reporting, many churches reach out neighbors and work in good faith to address social issues as well as more mundane concerns of those neighbors. Among all of those churches, two provide positive example:

 Friends Meeting of Washington (Quaker)

Former President Herbert Hoover, himself a Quaker, inaugurated the grand opening of the Friends Meeting house at Florida Avenue and Decatur Place, NW. From the beginning, the Friends merged their beliefs with community issues.

The meeting house was a launching site for civil rights as well as the anti-Vietnam war protests in DC during the 1960s. This emphasis on social justice continues to this day, an example being its close involvement with the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. <> Executive Director Malachy Kilbride asserts that the Fund’s work reflects the beliefs of the Friends community.

In the 1980s when AIDS/HIV was at it low point, the Friends provided a high point — when many shunned AIDS sufferers, the Friends welcomed them. For several hours each week they could mingle with those similarly afflicted to either commiserate or divert their thoughts from their aches and pains.

The Friends also operate the Mary Jane Simpson Scholarship Fund which annually awards multi-year college scholarships to DC public schools graduating seniors.<>

Another way the Friends reach out within the community is its hosting of neighborhood groups at its meeting house. A good example is Dupont Circle Village, launched in 2009, through which its members provide services so that seniors can stay in their homes as long as possible.

The Friends Meeting is currently in the process of a major upgrade of its buildings, including connecting them with handicapped-accessible passageways.

St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church

Located at the corner of 16th and Newton Streets, NW, the church is an important focus for residents of Mt. Pleasant and the eastern side of Adams Morgan, and especially of Columbia Heights.

Minister Bill MacKayer recognizes the neighborhood changes and the resulting tensions. During an electronic interview he provided an example by noting that there were several street benches in front of the nearby firehouse where persons, assumed to be homeless, gathered daily. “New neighbors,” as he identified them, perceived this as loitering and in due course those benches were removed.

As a result of the changing nature of the neighborhood, MacKayer has become even more adamant about the need for affordable housing. He implores that homeless and semi-homeless need a place to gather and to use a bathroom, among other needs. “St. Stephen’s has benches and steps where folks are welcome to sit as long as they like and schmooze with each other. The church itself is open every day for rest and prayer.”

But the church’s outreach into the community — home to large numbers of Central Americans — casts a wide net through its hosting of numerous community organizations, such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, the Loaves and Fishes feeding program, and several others having a positive impact in assisting the community.


In summation, the question whether DC churches are responsive to their changing neighborhoods,   the answer seems to be, no – despite the ones who are cognizant of, and responsive to, the needs of residents like those highlighted above.

On the other hand, if churches do follow the recommendations in the 2011 Flourish Magazine article mentioned above, relations between the churches and neighbors will benefit from following the four steps: meeting with the neighbors; identify neighborhood needs; get involved with the neighborhood;  and view neighborhood relations as a mission.

*Larry Ray, a Senior Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University School of Law, is a former Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights ANC commissioner, as well as having previously served as President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association and also of the 1905-established Columbia Heights Civic Association.

Copyright © 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.