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Marc Fisher

D.C. Congregation Moved On Without Walking Away

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page B01

Come Sunday morning, the people who pray at Calvary Baptist Church would drive into the city from Annandale and Arlington, pick up the condoms and empty vodka bottles littering the doorstep and settle into their sanctuary, very much apart from the world outside.

That was a decade ago, before MCI Center was built, before the idea of choosing to live in downtown Washington became a reality of apartment towers, $24 entrees and 22 new movie screens. In those days, Calvary suffered the woes of most old downtown churches, its membership having spent the previous quarter-century dwindling, aging and fleeing to the suburbs. Calvary, at Eighth and H streets NW in the heart of Chinatown, had an embarrassment of space and a shortage of people. There was a lunch program for the vanishing elderly Chinese population and services for the homeless, but Sunday school had maybe 10 students and services attracted but a few dozen members.

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Then came the sports arena and the developers, the eateries and the bars, the empty-nesters and young professionals eager to live where the action is. Suddenly Calvary, which once boasted the tallest spire in the city, was dwarfed by office buildings and surrounded by a whirlwind of construction and a budding street life.

Calvary had sold land on Seventh Street before the boom, getting only $1 million for what is now a very valuable stretch of restaurants and shops. But after the arena opened, the church made a better deal, selling its parking lot on G Street for $11 million.

So here was the church that hired the Rev. Amy Butler two years ago: aging, suburban, white retirees with little connection to the city where they once worked; new residents with no community of their own; and a place in the heart of a troubled, changing city.

And here is Calvary today: Money from the parking lot deal is being pumped into a huge renovation that will soon provide a gym for local kids, classrooms, a kitchen and dining facilities and a home for the Theater Lab, an arts group that teaches children, office workers and even prisoners about themselves through stagecraft. Calvary is becoming something it hasn't been for more than a generation -- a burgeoning community of people from all walks.

While many city churches chase after their members to the suburbs, Calvary stayed put. It is home to the federal retirees who joined when it had 4,000 members in the 1950s, but also to the singles, gays, young couples and new retirees who are moving into downtown apartments. All-white Calvary has become 30 percent black, 15 percent Latino and 15 percent Asian. It still reaches out to the struggling, providing a home to a fast-growing Salvadoran contingent and the city's only Burmese congregation, the latter an anxious mix of asylum-seeking refugees and diplomats from the military government their pew mates have fled.

As the city changes, there is much fear about longtime residents being displaced, lost in the rush for riches. Amy Butler sees the changes as opportunity, not loss. "This was such a depressed neighborhood," she says. "We did feeding and clothing programs for the homeless. Now we do welcome coffees for new residents and a Sunday morning discussion group at the tapas bar on Seventh Street."

Calvary will not turn its back on those in need; the new building will allow a big expansion of the after-school program for children who have no one to go home to at 3 o'clock. Patients from St. Elizabeths will still come to sing and learn crafts.

But the new neighbors allow Butler to stand firm against Calvary becoming a church for old suburbanites or a gay church or a church for the poor. Instead, it can become "a church where you encounter different people and break down categories and connect with people." In this community, a 91-year-old man from Virginia who was a Zip code pioneer at the Post Office meets a rising star in the Postal Service who lives downtown, and a friendship is born. "Our young professionals won't see the neighborhood kids and their families as a social action project but as our own congregation," Butler says.

Next month, trucks will deliver Calvary's new steeple, a re-creation of the church's original spire that will reach closer to the heavens than any other structure in the new downtown.

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