Palm Sunday on Capitol Hill. The early morning sun weaves indecisively in and out of the clouds. Enjoying the fragrant bouquet of spring, church-goers are gathering for services at two Baptist churches that stand like spiritual bookends at opposite ends of a block in Northeast Washington.
On the corner of 6th and A streets, the Rev. C. Wade Freeman Jr. bustles about between three sets of bright red double doors, greeting congregants arriving for Sunday school.
"Well," one woman observes, eyeing the church's neatly manicured, newly spring green grounds, "seems like the Lord's finally seen fit to put an end to winter." Clutching a leather-bound Bible in one hand and a well dressed little girl in the other, she smiles and steps briskly into the brick building.
At the other end of the block, a young boy gingerly avoids a mud puddle as he approaches the steps of Cole Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
The building at 7th and A streets, with its cracked windows, creaking doorways and spires pointing into the heavens, stands in none of its former glory. The few remaining blades of grass in the front yard are spindly, pale and overgrown. "For Sale" signs are pushed into the mud directly in front of the church steps.
These two churches, locked together denominationally and geographically, could hardly be more different. One thrives; the other falters. One fairly defines spiritual harmony; the other is steeped in dissatisfaction.
The predominantly white congregation of Capitol Hill Metropolitan Baptist Church is firmly rooted in the Southern Baptist tradition, solidly middle class and very stable. Although church rolls have decreased over the years as the complexion of the Hill has changed, upwards of 300 people attend regularly, and official church membership hovers between 1,200 and 1,300.
Many who joined the church when they lived in the area now think nothing of making the weekly drive back in from the Virginia or Maryland suburbs, often bypassing churches within walking distance of their homes.
"We live two blocks away from a Baptist church," said Becky Dunlap, who, with her husband George drives in from Northern Virginia for services. "We wouldn't think of changing though, because this is home."
At neighboring Cole Capitol Hill Baptist, a deacon laments that a "lack of unity and togetherness" is one of his church's main problems.
There are others.
The seven-year-old congregation, which takes its name from its founder and current pastor, the Rev. Wilbert C. Cole, has been for sale for nearly two years.The building is owned by another black church in Northeast, Lincoln Park United Methodist, at 13th and North Carolina.The Cole congregation rents it for $600 per month.
Reports say the rent has been up to four months in arrears. It is a source of displeasure in the congregation.
Church membership once numbered 1,000, but if 30 or 40 people attend on any given Sunday, no one is surprised. Membership has been steadily declining as a rift between the pastor and the congregation has grown.
Some members, all of whom are black, and most of whom fall into the lower income brackets, approach Sunday with a leaden air. Once inside, where the hospital green walls are peeling, the ceiling is cracked and there is no heat, they sit -- obviously edgy -- talking in hushed tones throughout the service.
Absent is the spirit of vitality and rejuvenation so obvious in the congregation of Capitol Hill Metropolitan Baptist.
"We have a warmth and a sense of mission that I just didn't find elsewhere," Valda Harris, a seven-year member of Capitol Hill Metropolian says. "I'm from Alabama and the tradition of the small, friendly, southern Baptist church, and even though this is a much larger congregation, it feels like family to me."
Members of the Capitol Hill Metropolitan congregation are pleased that their formerly all-white church is changing with the times, has opened its doors to anyone wishing to join, and is making an effort to become an important part of the mostly black community that surrounds it.
"We've undergone a lot of healthy change in the past eight or nine years," noted Pastor Freeman, who's been with the church 10 years. "Over the years, people's basic attitudes have changed and a lot of their fears have evaporated . . . We have learned to live in the 20th century."
Freeman says he actively seeks new members -- of any color -- but adds, "you've got to realize that there are about 600 black Baptist churches in D.C., and together, they have about a half-million people in Sunday school every week.
"So those people are not my prospects . . .These are fine churches, too, and in a manner of speaking, I guess you could say that they're in competition with us. But the doors are open just the same."
Church members leave flyers with details of services and activities on doorknobs in the neighborhood, and, almost to a person, they eagerly talk up the virtues of their church.
"What kind of church do you belong to?" a visitor is asked. "Catholic? Oh. Well, they make the best Baptists, you know," she continues, smiling but clearly serious.
Down the street, the members of Cole Capitol Hill Baptist exhibit no such missionary zeal.
"I wouldn't try to talk you into coming here," one woman said, "because I'm about ready to leave myself."
Rev. Cole refused several times to be interviewed by a Washington Post reporter.
"Everything is just fine," he said just before hanging up the phone. "We are going strong and have never been better."
The choir at Capitol Hill Metropolitan has just finished the final hymn of the morning. Their harmonious voices smoothly blend and resound off the walls of the church. When their songs is ended, a single note hangs in the air momentarily, then fades.
Churchgoers rise from their seats in both the balcony and lower level, and file out slowly. Smiles, greetings, hugs, and kisses are exchanged in the hallways as Rev. Freeman, now in one aisle, now at the door, now in the parking lot, tries to shake the hand of everyone who attended the service.
"This," says a woman who drives in from Glen Echo, "makes it all worthwhile. They'd have to do more than raise the price of gas before I'd give this up."
"I try to be a christian," Walter Jones, Cole Capitol Hill's only ordained deacon, says, "but when I leave church in the morning, I feel worse than I did before I got here. Cole is the type who'll shake your hand at the door and then say 'Get the (collection) basket.'
"I'm used to the tradition of the old country southern church, and this really goes against the grain. I'm looking for a church where I can hear a good sermon, listen to somebody sing, do a little praying and leave feeling like I've got the strength to make it through the week."