Six years ago Al Phillips bought a small grocery store on Flower Avenue in Takoma Park and started selling health foods and some home-grown produce.
For years, the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been located in Takoma Park, and Phillips figured he had a ready market in the thousands of Adventists -- a largely vegetarian group -- who lived in the community.
Today Al's Farm Market does a booming business, but the Adventist grandmothers buying soy bean curd and organically grown cantaloupes are outnumbered by young people who are only dimly aware of the church's connection with Takoma Park.
"We've been getting busier every year," Phillips says. "The younger generation, the young adults moving here, keep us growing every year."
The changing clientele at Al's Market is a reflection of a more subtle shift that is occurring in Takoma Park, a quiet neighborhood of Victorian homes that straddles the borders of the District and Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
As young couples in search of affordable housing, move into Takoma Park in increasing numbers, the influence of the Adventists, who once were a dominant force in the town's politics, real estate and commerce, is beginning to wane.
Gone are the days when the church -- in an incident that's still cited among Takoma Park residents -- could tear down two houses it owned in the middle of town and erect a 10-story building without showing the plans to anyone.
"There was a time that people thought once you entered Takoma Park you automatically came under the Adventist stricture," says Takoma Park Mayor Sam Abbott. "But that just isn't so anymore."
In part the change is a function of numbers. The Adventist population in the town has decreased by about 50 percent in the last 15 to 20 years. In the early 1960s, between 6,000 and 7,000 Adventists lived among the 9,000 non-Adventists. Today, the Adventists constitute about 3,000 of the town's 18,000 citizens.
But equally important, according to community activists, has been a change in attitude on the part of the church's leaders. Once aloof and relatively secretive about its plans, the church in recent years has become more sensitive to community issues and more willing to solicit the views of the rest of the town.
The church's role in town elections has often been a source of controversy in the past. According to Robert Osborn, the church's investment manager, the church leadership "only suggests what local candidates the members should vote for."
Marsh and other community leaders, however, say the influence has been less subtle. Six years ago, the Washington Adventist Hospital included in its in-house publication a sample ballot with astericks beside the names of the incumbent leadership, and double astericks beside the names of Adventist candidates.
Joe Webb, a former councilman who was on this ballot, said that was done "just to identify who was who in the election," Marsh said, however, that the ballot was "blatantly an attempt to influence the Adventist voting."
"Although the church will always say that they don't get involved in politics," said one young church leader who asked not to be identified, "they do preach from their churches and their pulpits that a certain candidate wouldn't be good for the Adventists. One of the men they never wanted to see elected just became mayor [Abbott], though, and there don't seem to be any major problems."
In the past, the church leaders tended to only become involved in issues they felt strongly about -- issues they felt threatened their lifestyle or property -- and often found themselves opposing neighborhood groups. The church frequently sponsored moves that would lead to further development -- widening roads, constructing eight-lane highways nearby, supporting Metro construction -- while neighborhood groups were striving to maintain the town's character.
"We're trying to work out better relations, and although the Adventist leadership is still conservative, the more liberal wing of the church is speaking out now," said Allan Marsh, a Takoma Park resident for 16 years and president of the Old Takoma Citizens Association.
Marsh who in the past often opposed the Adventists, is one of the many activists who says there's been a pronounced easing of relations between the two factions.
Church leaders, for their part, concede there have been problems.
"Through the years, there has been some bad blood," said Osborn, who has lived in Takoma Park for 14 years.
"We show our faces only when there are potential problems. But things are changing. We had two church members on the city council until the recent election, then we had very good relations with the city fathers themselves. We weren't too sure that the new mayor, Sam Abbot, would be too pro our interests, but I think things will work out fine."
The Adventists first came to Takoma Park in 1904, after their headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich., burned down and Adventist leaders felt they needed an internationally known address such as Washington in order to grow.
They then proceeded to build their general conference (world headquarters) and national conference, as well as Columbia Union College and the Washington Adventist Hospital. Subsequent expansion has made the church the largest property owner in Takoma Park, although no one can pinpoint, exactly how much land it owns here.
A visitor leaving the Takoma Metro station, would think he was entering an entirely Adventist town.
He would immediately see: the 10-story North Building, the world headquarters; the smaller national headquarters buildings; the two Review and Herald Publishing Co. buildings; a correspondence school for the Adventists' missionary children; a modern pentagonal recreation and social center, and the Takoma Park Adventist Church.
Approaching Takoma Park from neighboring Silver Spring, he would see yet another cluster of Adventist buildings: the Columbia Union College campus, the Sligo Adventist Church, the Washington Adventist Hospital, and an Adventist elementary and high school.
In addition, many of the large, turn-of-the-century houses that account for much of Takoma's character have been willed to the church.
A particularly sore point in the community has been the church's practice of converting these single-family houses willed to them into multiple-unit dwellings. Since last November, however, the church has put about 20 single-family residences back onto the real estate market.
Civic activist Marsh says his most difficult dealings with the church have been over the conversions of these houses.
"As they divided the houses, the property continued to run down, he says. "More transients moved into the area, problems arose, and the Adventists faulted the community for blight because of condidtions they helped create."
"I would like to see the Seventh-day Adventists make the government more aware of their long-range plans. I think the church owes it to the community to inform us of its direction," says Abbott, the first mayor in more than 25 years to win without strong Adventist backing.
"It's the college students of the '60s who are now becoming leaders in the church," said Dr. James Landis, the young pastor of Sligo Church. "And many of us believe in a much more intense interest in community affairs. A lot of older leaders, especially in the General Conference, are involved in world missionary work, and they're too caught up in New Guineau and India to be too concerned with Takoma Park.
"It's like Gulf & Western having their world headquarters somewhere -- they're more concerned with their oil wells in the North Sea than they are with the town."
Relations between the church and local businessmen also have not always been peaceful.
Some Takoma Park store owners still bristle at the thought of the church-run Esda retail store, which sold products ranging from stationery to television sets and cameras at a discount to church members. The store closed two years ago, businessmen say, because of their opposition. Church leaders say the church could no longer afford to tie up so much money in the store's inventory.
"The Adventists would use you for a showroom because Esda didn't have items on display," said Bob Fuller, owner of a TV store. "You'd spend a half hour with them; they'd take the description and model number and then go order it from Esda."
These days, however, nearly every one in Takoma Park thinks relations with the church are better than they have ever been.
The young, upwardly mobile people moving into Takoma Park seem far more interested in restoring their mortgaged Victorian homes than in debating the influence of the Adventists -- except in one area.
Adventists do not drink alcohol, and so Takoma Park has always been dry. Some of the newcomers wouldn't mind an end to that.
"You really don't notice the Adventists around here," said Fred Chanteau, who bought a century-old house in Takoma Park three years ago, "but I think they'd go nuts if we ever proposed a bar."