Eight decades after Bishop Smallwood E. Williams pitched a tent to save souls at New York and New Jersey avenues NW in the District, the Bible Way Church can still be found at the bustling crossroads, a testimony to the staying power of faith.
And after overcoming segregation, persecution for its Pentecostal faith and an attempt by the federal government to buy the sanctuary to build an exit ramp from Interstate 395, Bible Way has a bright future as well as a proud past, the 75-year-old daughter of the church’s founder said.
“Dad never was just about addressing spiritual needs; it was always about addressing a whole range of needs,” said Yvonne Williams, who chairs the trustee board of the church.
In the 1970s, Bible Way was on the cutting edge of providing services to the community, including a 183-unit affordable-housing complex known as the Golden Rule and an adjacent grocery store.The complex, financed in part by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was open to District residents who met Section 8 affordable-housing requirements.
“We never built anything just for the members,” Williams said. “My father’s heart was always for the entire community.”
In 2012, the church cut the ribbon for SeVerna, a 60-unit affordable-housing development at First and L streets NW. In February, the church broke ground on a 132-unit building — the second phase of its affordable-housing initiative.
The church is a development force in one of the fastest-growing corridors in the city, but Williams and Bible Way leaders say they maintain focus on the church’s spiritual future, too.
Last month, Elder Ronald Demery was named church pastor; Apostle James Silver retired as pastor this year. Silver, who had led the church since Bishop Williams’s death in 1991, is Demery’s grandfather.
Describing his ministry style, the 40-year-old Demery borrowed a phrase from Princeton University professor Cornel West: “You cannot lead the people unless you love the people, and you can’t love the people if you don’t serve the people.”
In his 1981 autobiography, “This Is My Story,” the church’s founder, Smallwood Williams, described his life as a passionate religious and community leader devoted to serving the people during a critical time for the city.
After moving to the District from Columbus, Ohio, in 1927, Williams started his ministry by preaching at a fire hydrant near Seventh and O streets NW. In the years that followed, he would go from a storefront to the church’s current multimillion-dollar temple.
“I understand how we got here,” Demery said. “A 20-year-old young man stood on a street corner and preached to people who were passing by. My hope is that we can go back to where we came from and go back out into the streets and reach the lost.”
Last month, 13 people were injured in a drive-by shooting a block from the church, near Tyler House, a federally subsidized apartment complex that has been plagued by violence for decades. Even as so much around New York Avenue and North Capitol Street has changed for the better, Demery said, young people in the area need more than Bible verses.
“The first thing that we have to do is love them,” Demery said. “This generation needs love. The next thing we need to do is understand what their needs are. We have to have a diverse ministry in terms of our presentation.”
Demery said he is using e-mail and YouTube to reach young adults in the same way that Williams built a weekly radio ministry that expanded to several countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
As Demery spoke, Yvonne Williams sat across from him. Williams, a lawyer, said she has been focused on the church’s effort to build affordable-housing units in the District. She said she is only continuing what her father put in place decades ago.
Williams said her parents and early members of the church faced many challenges along the way, including being Pentecostals at a time when the city pastors with the most clout were Baptist, Methodist and Catholic.
“The very first challenge was when Dad first started preaching, the Pentecostal faith was not recognized,” Yvonne Williams said. “He couldn’t get a license to marry people. Daddy was the first Pentecostal minister to get a license to marry families. The churches that were not part of the well-known denominations were discriminated against.”
The second challenge in the 1950s was integration. In Bishop Williams’s book, a headline from the March 3, 1952, edition of the Evening Star reads, “Sit-Down by Colored Minister at White School Brings Walkout.” The book contains a black-and-white photo of him and his son seated at a desk built for children while white kids watched.
“Slow Elementary was a block away from our home,” Yvonne Williams said. “One day he took my brother [Wallace] down with some other kids and sat in the classroom.’’
In the early 1960s, when the federal government was building I-395, officials wanted to buy the church property for the exit ramp. In a 1985 interview with The Washington Post, Bishop Williams said that after he learned of the plan, he phoned Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
“The vice president said, ‘Don’t let them move one inch against this church until it crosses my desk,’ ” Bishop Williams recalled in the interview. As a result, the church sits near an exit and entrance ramp of the highway in what is called “the Bible Way Bend.”
Williams, who started the church with $5 in his pocket, went on to build the $3.5 million temple in the early 1980s, when the congregation grew to more than 5,000 members. He also headed an international organization with 500,000 members in congregations across the United States, Africa and the Caribbean.
Today, Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ World-Wide is headed by Apostle Huie L. Rogers and a board of bishops. Bible Way in the District is still part of that organization.