A Northeast Washington Church that decided two decades ago to stay to serve its changing neighborhood instead of moving to the suburbs has celebrated the soundness of that decision.
At a special service last Sunday afternoon, they burned the mortgage to the Michigan Park Christian Church.
"It's the work of congregations such as yours that give meaning to the Christian fellowship," the guest preacher, the Rev. Ian J. McCrae of Indianapolis, told the crowd gathered for the mortgage-burning ceremony.
Afterward, the pastor, the Rev. Arthur A. Azlein, recalled for a visitor some of the history of the church.
Established in 1896 in Southwest Washington, the congregation bought the pleasant, tree-shaded site at South Dakota Avenue and Taylor Street NE in 1947.
At that time the neighborhood as well as the congregation was solidly white. But within a few years, substantial numbers of black families had moved into the area and Azlein invited them into the church.
The first black to join, in 1954, was William J. Scott, Azlein recalled. "Scotty is a very forthright sort of person," Azlein, who is white, reminisced, "and when I went to call on him to invite him to bring his family to church, he said to me very bluntly: 'What are you up to?'"
Last Sunday, Scott, a professional photographer, sat in the front row at the mortgage-burning, recording every detail with his camera.
Azlein recalled another early black member, a young woman whose parents warned her against attending the white church, predicting that you'll be hurt."
She came anyway, Azlein recalled, promising her parents to return home if she encountered unpleasantness. Today, the pastor said, Shirley Mitchell serves as the congregation's official historian.
Azlein acknowledged that the integration of Michigan Park Church drove out some white members. "The Sunday the Scotts joined, one of the old-time members said to me after the service that that made him sick, and he never came back."
The pastor, who in 1963 was cited by the NAACP for his contributions to race relations, said there was never any "hubbub" or complaints from whites in church meetings over integration. "But some of them just stopped coming to church regularly and gradually disappeared," he said.
For five or six years, Michigan Park Christian was the only one of the seven Protestant churches in the Northeast neighborhood that was integrated.
"We became a community center for all kinds of groups to meet," he recalled.
In those days the church's Sunday school was so crowded that two shifts were used, he said.
A vital community service that the church launched in 1960 was the Pearl Smith Youth Center, a facility for school-age children whose parents work. "Parents can leave them here as early as 7 a.m. and we see that they get to school," Azlein explained. After school the children return to the center, which remains open until 6 p.m.
At the present time, he said, "there are about 90 children at the center, very few of whom are children of members of our congregation."
Of the 700 or so members on the church rools today, only a handful are white, Azlein said, with the membership reflecting the population of the neighborhood.
In 1966, when the congregation sought to borrow the $220,000 it needed to complete the classically handsome brick colonial sanctuary, members were told by lending agencies that they "might not be a good investment," Azlein recalled for the congregation Sunday.
The loan had to come from the denominational headquarters of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The predominantly white denomination already had made known its pleasure with the congregation's integration leadership several years before with a $10,000 grant as part of the national fellowship's "Churches in Transition" program.
And so last Sunday, after appropriate prayers, sermons and hyms - and a jocular reference to the District Columbia Fire Chief Jefferson Lewis, who is a solid member of the church - Shirley F. O'Neil, chairman of the trustees, solemnly pulled the mortgage out of a brown, legal-size manila envelope.
He held it over a brass alms basin on a table in front of the altar, while two fellow trustees, Otis C. Davenport and Freddie L. Parker, each brought lighted white tapers and touched them to the paper's edge. As the flames leaped, the congregation sang "Praise God From Whom All Blessings FLow."
They had paid off their debt, plus $71,000 in interest, dollar by dollar over the 12 years. No, Azlein said, there were no bazzars, no chicken suppers, no fund-raising gimmicks.
"We put it in the budget and the people simply gave it," he said. "It pleases me that we didn't hve to commercialize the thing; I'm proud of them."