Correction to This Article
This article misspelled the last name of the executive director of the Dinner Program for Homeless Women. She is Erika Barry.

New Church Only In Their Prayers

 Barbara Hayes bows her head in prayer during services.  She became a member of First Congregational in 1944.
Barbara Hayes bows her head in prayer during services. She became a member of First Congregational in 1944. (Katherine Frey - The Washington Post )
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On a downtown Washington corner, where generations of babies were blessed and marriages celebrated, where prayers were recited and God was praised, is a crater -- 40 feet deep and silent.

The worshipers at First Congregational United Church of Christ did not want their land to appear this way, not by this point.

Two years ago, fed up with their broken-down church and eager to raise money, the congregants sought salvation in the development company PN Hoffman, which offered to erect a 10-story office building and create a new sanctuary within its first two floors.

But the crippled economy has disrupted that plan, as it has at other local churches. Unable to sign a major tenant, the developer has suspended the project, after having demolished the church and digging a hole for a foundation. The church's 100 active members have had to relocate their services to temporary quarters, sharing space with two other congregations wrestling with their own real estate headaches.

"I might die before I see the new church," said Peg Lorenz, 82, a member since 1940 whose mother and grandmother attended First Congregational. She met her husband there as well.

Whenever she goes downtown from her home in Baileys Crossroads, Lorenz stops at 10th and G streets NW, the church's address since the Civil War, hungry for any sign of rebirth. "I want to see some action," she said. "We don't have a place to call home."

In the frenzy of the real estate boom, a wave of Washington congregations formed partnerships with builders, selling parking lots and development rights to raise cash to fix up buildings and strengthen ministries.

But as the economy has faltered and construction has all but ceased, congregations are postponing or altering plans. In one case, a substantial portion of the profit that St. Luke's United Methodist Church made selling land on Wisconsin Avenue was lost in the stock market, helping to force the congregation's merger with another. In another, Metropolitan Baptist Church's 2,000 congregants are worshiping in a school after construction on a new sanctuary in Largo stalled midway because the church couldn't find a bank to lend it additional funding, the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. said.

"Timing is everything," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a consortium of more than 40 churches and synagogues. "Those who got their projects done are in a much better situation. Those that hoped to redevelop or modernize are facing tremendous challenges."

First Congregational's plight is unusual because the project stopped after work began. PN Hoffman needs to secure construction financing before it continues, something it cannot obtain without leasing 60 percent of the building. The developer has not found any tenants and acknowledged that it could be as long as two years before work resumes.

In the meantime, First Congregational's members have had to adjust to sharing space at another church eight blocks away and shifting their Sunday worship to the afternoon.

An organization that served the homeless at First Congregational for more than 30 years followed the church to its temporary quarters. But the project's difficulties are causing awkward discussions about whether the program can return when the church rebuilds.

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