From house church to 1,000-seat solar-powered sanctuary

For years, Clarence Groover was a NASA mathematician by day and a husband, father of four  and Pentecostal pastor by night.

But last weened, Bishop Clarence Groover Sr. could only smile as hundreds of church and community leaders filled the Fisherman of Men Church (FOMC) in the District to celebrate the completion of a  $2 million renovation of a  1,000-seat sanctuary that for several years was snared in a historic preservation battle.

Old York Theater gets spiritual face lift after historic preservation battle
Old York Theater gets spiritual facelift after historic preservation battle. (Hamil Harris/The Washington Post)

Robert Saunders, presiding apostle of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith,  joined Groover and other leaders during a ribbon-cutting ceremony April 5 because for several years the church’s renovation plans were held up in the D.C. Historic Preservation Board. The church was located in what many thought was a historic theater that also was the first home of Evangel Cathedral.

In  2012, the D.C. Historic Preservation Board voted down a request to grant historic status to a former movie theater.  Even though the building at Quebec Place and Georgia Avenue was built in 1919 as the York Theater, the panel voted 5 to 3 against the designation, saying there was not enough reason to give it historic status.

“It is almost unbelievable,” said Groover, who for the past four decades has gone from leader of a family-run church to a broadcast minister with several hundred followers.

“We have made more than $2 million in renovations, and had the building  been designated as historic, we would have had to use materials that were used when the theater was first built 100 years ago,” Groover said. “This is why churches should be exempt from historic preservation.”

As part of the renovation, the church converted to solar energy that basically eliminated its electric bill and the solar panels that allow the church to also sell electricity.

Grover, along with his wife Nettie and their four children, started the church  in the living room of their home in Northeast Washington in 1969. Today the church attracts several hundred people each week who come from across the area, and college students from several institutions, including Howard University, Trinity College and Georgetown University.

In addition to preaching,  Groover worked in applied mathematics at Goddard Space Flight Center and then at the Bureau of Naval Statistics. For more than 20 years, he worked in the computer systems at Howard University, and in 2009 he retired as chief information officer.

Bishop Groover lays hands on people during rededication service
Bishop Clarence Groover lays hands on people during the rededication service. (Hamil Harris/The Washington Post)

While the Groovers now celebrate, their joy is mixed with sorrow because only one of their children is still alive. Daughter Judy Groover said that the image of her siblings who died between 2004 and 2010 — Clarence Groover Jr., Anita Groover and Sonya Groover — always remain with her.

“I really miss my siblings because they were the rock of this church,” Judy said. “The best part of my life was living in the house church because when everybody else went home, we went home to church. Then God bless us to be able to move into the movie theater.”

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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