Of Church and Change

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 2, 2006

When the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley arrived in a troubled Washington in 1968, he was sure he was seeing the cusp of a new world order.

He was a 31-year-old United Church of Christ minister from North Carolina moving to a home and church in Petworth, a predominantly black neighborhood that city planners had on a list of places expected to go bust, if not up in flames, he said. The country was staggering from Martin Luther King Jr.'s killing. But the Yale Divinity School graduate was certain that the social turmoil would prompt a more equal, just society.

As Stanley, now 69, retires this week, much has changed. Now one of the deans of the city's clergy, he leaves a church -- Peoples Congregational, on 13th Street NW -- whose members are a virtual who's who of city leaders, and his prominence is such that retirement tributes, concerts, lectures, toasts and roasts have been going on across the city since January. Even houses in Petworth now sell for a half-million dollars.

The decades have changed him, his neighborhood, his city and the black church -- a place he has written about often in books and newspapers and sermonized about from the pulpit. But if he has concluded one thing, it is that the new world order he expected didn't quite show up. He sees increased chaos in the Iraq war, in the rise of the religious right and in a cold street culture that leaves him fearful to start a conversation with young people he doesn't know.

But his definition of what a new world order might look like has broadened, he says. It goes beyond black voting rights and segregation and is about peace between people. And after seeing decades of hearts change in his work as a pastor, he is oddly more optimistic in some ways.

As Stanley heads to Atlanta, where his wife's family lives and where he hopes to do philanthropic work, he leaves a city with more nuances and less obvious answers. Which is how he seems himself, too.

"This may surprise you, but this is a better city than when I came," said Stanley, who often lashed out at forces of racism he felt kept the majority-black city down. In a 1987 sermon, he defended then-Mayor Marion Barry from white federal prosecutors, calling Washington a place "where cloak-and-dagger forces lurk in dark corners to assassinate your character. . . . Our future as a city is in question."

These days, he takes the city's clergy to task for having been so cozy with Barry that they were unable to "speak prophetically against Barry's antics," as he was quoted in a Washington Post article. He says the racial climate is better, there is more prosperity and Washington is cleaner.

"We have developed one of the most wealthy and educated African American communities in the world," he said in an interview this week.

Yet he knows a minister like him could not afford his home in Petworth if he had to buy it today. He knows some black Washingtonians still believe in something called "the Plan," an alleged conspiracy to rid the city of blacks. Although he at one time might have believed in the Plan, today he characterizes racism as not deliberate, but simply endemic.

There are other complexities. Stanley, son of a nationally prominent Congregationalist minister and active in the civil rights movement in North Carolina, came to Washington with the belief that ministry was an inherently political profession and that clergy should be partisan, should take sides. His view has changed after seeing the rise of evangelical Christians in U.S. politics.

"I think it's bad for a theology to be imposed on the whole nation," he said.

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