"I HAVE 107 announcements to read," begins the Rev. Robert Pruitt one Sunday morning. "I don't know how you will remember." The congregation stirs, amused yet anxious to hear the birth notices, the thanks to a generous flock for the new church cushions, a solicitation for a beauty contest competitor, and the congratulations to the mother of a Detroit Lions draftee.
These are the ordinary proceedings of a black church on any Sunday, but the strength of this church, the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, is that the morning is never routine for long.
The harmony this morning is personalized by the guest speaker, Thaddeus Garrett, an ordained minister and the domestic adviser to Vice President George Bush. Taking his lesson from Corinthians 4:22, Garrett says, "You will find saints everywhere--pool halls, unemployment lines, the White House." There's a collective raising of the eyebrows. "We don't have to be part of Caesar's politics because we live in his house," Garrett goes on. "We don't have to do Caesar's dirty work."
As he sits down, the congregation is murmuring, but Pruitt, never known to let an opportunity for a political aside go by, has the final word. "I'm glad to know there are some good folks in Caesar's house. I was beginning to worry."
The oldest black church within the original 10 square miles of the city, Metropolitan AME, at 1518 M St. NW, is listed by the National Register of Historic Places and the city's Joint Committee on Landmarks. It is the oldest continuously black-owned property in downtown Washington. Its congregation, which dates back to 1820, reflects the history of Washington's early freed black community and provides a record of the often overlooked social history of the black middle class.
It is a church of legendary names and historic institutions. Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century leader and philosopher, lectured and worshiped in the beautiful ash wood auditorium, as did Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the famous black poet of the late 19th century. When the black high schools had their drill team competition, they marched in Metropolitan. Before Howard University and Dunbar High School had large enough facilities of their own, both held graduations at the church. William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, John Harlan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune, Clarence Darrow and Jimmy Carter have spoken from the podium. And performers on their way to international renown, such as Leontyne Price, have used its auditorium.
Though the church is steeped in history, Metropolitan also has a vibrant contemporary life. As the neighborhood grew into a high-rent commercial zone, the congregration turned down million dollar offers for the choice property. Members have struggled to raise money for restoration of the aging brick exterior. To help raise money, the church started a lively breakfast and lunch program open to the public where the chatter of the patrons over their fried chicken and peach cobbler often tests the patience of the church workers.
The kind of people who traditionally worshiped at Metropolitan AME--well-heeled, highly educated leaders--are still dominant in the congregation today.
"In the congregation, 800 people have master's degrees, 70-some people with PhDs, that's unusual. So when people come here, they expect to find high-class worship with a black emphasis," says Pruitt, the pastor for the last 10 years who has a staff of six assistant ministers. "And, while we like to talk about our highly skilled members, we also have bus drivers, taxi drivers. It does not discriminate; it is not a class conscious congregation. It simply attracts those who like class worship."
Its roster of well-known Washingtonians includes: historian Charles Wesley; Darrold Hunt, director of the Urban Philharmonic; Ersa Poston, vice chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board; attorney Robert Washington, and former president of the National Urban League Vernon Jordan.
When the time for concentration on the Lord's business arrives with the sunlight streaming through the stained glass, the congregation seems obsessed with good manners. "High class with a black emphasis," says Pruitt. "People can emote a little if they want to, say 'Amen,' but always with dignity. This is quality worship." Family History
In a basement meeting room of Metropolitan, Nettie Vance reads a copy of a letter written by her mother 50 years ago about events that took place 50 years before the letter was written. Vance, a white-haired woman with a gentle, musical voice, her mother, and the letter link the Metropolitan's past and present.
Dissatisfaction with the white Methodist Episcopal church in the early 1820s led to the formation of local black congregations. The forerunner of Metropolitan was Israel Bethel African Methodist Episcopal, which met in private homes and schoolhouses and then grew into the Union Bethel AME in 1838.
Those churches established early roles of community charity and work. Metropolitan, which dedicated the ground floor of the current building in 1865, served as a stop on the underground railroad and was the home for the foremost debating society of the black community, the Bethel Literary and Historical Society. The church, officially named Metropolitan in 1872, was completed in 1886 for $70,000. It serves as the national cathedral church of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination that dates back to 1787. Among its early members were Francis Cardozo, the first black superintendent of Washington's separate "colored" schools, and Alethia Tanner, a legendary Washington figure who purchased her own freedom in 1810 and did the same for dozens of other blacks.
Isabella Hardy, Nettie Vance's mother, married Daniel Hardy in the Union Bethel, a brick structure built by slaves that stood on the Sumner School site on M Street NW between 16th and 17th streets, a block from the present site of the church. When Union was torn down, the Hardys and the other members scraped the mortar from the bricks, washed them, and carried them down the street to land owned by freed blacks, Andrew and Sarah Twine. Vance's older brother went to the pump and brought back water to scrub the brick. And when the church's first mortgage was paid, Vance's father lit the match.
Nettie Vance, 84, the youngest of the Hardy's 14 children, was christened in Metropolitan, baptized her one child and three grandchildren there, and from its two-story sanctuary buried her parents and two sisters. "I guess I will be, too," she says, walking through the upstairs auditorium, past the plaque commemorating Douglass' pew, her own seat, the chandeliers given by Douglass, the new purple cushion and carpet which caused some consternation until Pruitt announced that was the AME color.
Vance remembers the Rev. Frank Madison Reid, who "one Sunday brought a snake into the pulpit. He was very creative, he drew crowds." She remembers the day Eleanor Roosevelt spoke. "The cadets escorted her up the aisle, she got warm applause. I sat up in the gallery because I wanted to see it all." When she retired from the Government Printing Office after 37 years, she taught elementary school for 10 years. At Metropolitan she has taught Sunday school and vacation Bible school and was a steward for 10 years.
The senior members of the congregation remember the M Street area when Metropolitan members lived near enough to take the trolley or walk through an area that was a neighborhood of homes, instead of hotels and office buildings.
After World War II the neighborhood changed. And internally, Metropolitan did, too. "Since the early '50s there has been more social awareness," says Col. William Brooks, a member for more than 50 years and the vice chair of the senior board of stewards.
Some of the members who measured their ties to Metropolitan in generations instead of years, made the church feel cold to outsiders. Thelma Jackson, a Florida native and the daughter of an AME minister, decided to do something about that. "I went to Rev. Robinson and told him too many people don't know one another," says Jackson. In 1953 she organized the Florigia, for members from the South. In the late 1950s, as part of a growing outreach program, Jackson participated in suppers with other downtown churches. Today Jackson represents the church in other community projects, such as Deborah's Place, a shelter for "the marginally incapacitated" woman, and Sara House, a center that gives food and shelter for bag ladies.
Over the years developers have eyed the church's prized real estate. Three times the church has rejected lucrative offers. In the late '60s a minister wanted to sell the property, but the congregation voted him down. In 1973, the year the church was named a historic property by the Joint Landmarks, the congregation voted 310 to 5 to remain in its location. "And since then even those five have seen the wisdom of keeping this property," says Pruitt. The M Street Minister
It is the 11 a.m. service, the hour black ministers have called the most segregated in America. On the altar this morning, a joy pervades. It's more than just ecclesiastical good feelings; it's a security that fills Metropolitan because of its rich history. The sounds of "Lift Him Up" have swept through the cathedral. Thaddeus Garrett is mixing Madison Avenue with the Gospel. "He's like Delta, he'll get you there, he's like Maxwell House, good to the last drop," he says.
Then Garrett was telling the congregation that both he and Lola Pruitt, the minister's wife, had been in Arizona the previous week. "But we didn't see one another," said Garrett. Pruitt shouted out "Thank the Lord." And the congregation laughed.
Pruitt, who is celebrating his 10th anniversary this summer, is satisfied with the church's progress. Unlike many other churches, Metropolitan is growing; its rolls increased 1,400 to 3,000 in the last decade.
Pruitt's status as a community leader has placed him in the middle of District politics. He has been to the White House three times and most recently found himself in the company of Jerry Falwell on the National Day of Prayer, where he felt his presence was used. "I didn't understand the invitation or I wouldn't have gone. The president took the opportunity to speak on prayer in the schools. The Supreme Court has made the separation of church and state very clear. To me it's the responsibility of the church and parents," says Pruitt.
The church keeps looking forward. It is a partner in the planned office complex at the Sumner School, the first school built exclusively for black children and the site of the old Union church. That involvement will erase the current $800,000 mortgage and provide an annuity, says Pruitt, so the restoration can continue. "Not only did we stay but we arranged to stay," says Pruitt. "From now it's pay as you go." As soon as the first spade of dirt is turned, says Pruitt, someone will hear him shouting. He imagines that maybe Frederick Douglass will smile. And Pruitt often thinks of Douglass.
"Sometimes when the director of music is on the organ rehearsing, I will sit in the back of the auditorium. A sense of history flows over you, a sense of awe and holiness," says Pruitt. "That's humbling. You are really not so important."