The staying power of Florida Avenue Baptist


Alphalue H. Chambers, 91, left, and Jesse Graham attend Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington on April 15. (Hamil R. Harris/THE WASHINGTON POST)

At 100 years old, Florida Avenue Baptist Church knows what it’s about.

“We have been on this corner for 100 years, and we are committed to this community,” Pastor Earl Trent said. “You just don’t join this church and sit down.”

The sanctuary in the historic LeDroit Park neighborhood in Northwest Washington began celebrating its centennial in April, and it won’t stop until July. But whether it is hosting a jazz concert or installing solar energy panels on the church’s roof, the church manages to be a mix of yesterday and tomorrow, the young and not so young.

“I came here because I was looking for a church and this was a friendly church,” said Constance Jones, who has attended Florida Avenue Baptist for more than 50 years. “It means a great deal when you come to a church and you are thought of.”

Helen H. Mitchell, 84, said the congregation of about 400 is just the right size. “I wanted to go to a church where the pastor would know me and say something about me when I die,” she said.

The church was established in July 1912, and in all that time has had only four pastors. It would become the training ground for the legendary jazz pianist and composer Billy Taylor, who reportedly learned to play the piano there. His grandfather, the Rev. William Taylor, was the church’s first pastor.

In the early 1900s, many affluent African American families lived in comfortable rowhouses along LeDroit Park’s tree-lined streets, just southeast of Howard University, and Sundays meant dressing up, going to church and lots of singing.

Some of those melodies filled the church this past Sunday as renowned church music composer Rolland Carter directed the choir. Earlier, he had hosted a workshop where he emphasized the importance of appreciating all forms of church music.

“We can sing spirituals, we can sing operatic things, we can sing classic arias, contemporary and traditional gospel,” Carter said. “It is important for us to continue the blended worship service and not just any one kind of music. Our heritage is important. The young people have to learn to appreciate from whence they come.”

Holland Hargrove, 25, sings and plays the organ, but on Sunday he was quiet.

“I appreciate the past,” he said. “Dr. Carter really challenged me to grow, and at the same time, I’m focused on what it really means to live out the teachings of Christ.”

Over several decades, many of the church’s members left the District for the suburbs in Maryland, as crime and blight scarred the neighborhood. But Trent, who has been pastor for 17 years, said the church resolved that it would stay put, at Florida Avenue and Sixth Street NW.

After a revival that was in the making for a couple of decades, LeDroit Park has regained its luster, although the area has far fewer African Americans than it did in its heyday. Just last month, the famed Howard Theatre, across the street from Florida Avenue Baptist, reopened after mostly lying fallow for more than 30 years. The neighborhood even sports a grand arch announcing its pride and prominence.

But there’s still more to be done, Trent said, and the church plans to play a significant role.

On the wall above the pulpit, a passage from the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament highlights the relationship between Florida Avenue Baptist and its community.

“Isaiah 58 talks about the renewal of the community and the regeneration of the future,” Trent said. “The charge for the people of God is to rebuild the city, and that is what we are about.”

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