Wander through Georgetown on a Sunday morning and you'll see scores of people coming back to the neighborhood that their families once called home.
Traveling from the outer edges of the city and distant suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, black families return each Sunday to the Georgetown churches where they were baptized, where they sung in the youth choir, where they took their wedding vows.
Although most of their families left the neighborhood more than 25 years ago, old-time residents and their children still come back to five churches, living monuments to a once-thriving black community in Georgetown.
At the corner of 26th and P streets NW, a gorest-green van pulls up to the steps of Jerusalem Baptist Church and straw-hatted women sclimb out, followed by a gaggle of youngsters in dotted swiss dresses and freshly pressed pants.
On 27th Street, the strains of gospel music drift through the open windows of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church on the right and First Baptist Church on the left. At 27th and N, a preacher's voice booms through the high-ceilinged sanctuary of the Alexander Memorial Baptist Church.
Around the corner at Mount Zion United Methodist Church, white-gloved women sweep cardboard fans through the clammy air as the Rev. James K. McCants helps a frail parishoner up the stairs.
Amid the early-rising joggers and the well-to-do homeowners walking their dogs, it's a morning of warm reunions and fervent religion for Georgetown's black churchgoers.
In other parts of Washington, older churches and synagogues either disbanded or followed their members to the suburbs or different sections of the city as resdiential patterns shifted. But in Georgetown these five black churches survived the exodus of members and today they are reincarnated as "commuter churches," pulling in the faithful from as far as Columbia, Md., and Vienna, Va.
"All of there people pass by six or seven Methodist churches coming to Mount Zion Methodist Church," said McCants, the trim forceful pastor of the historic church at 1334 29th St. NW.
"They come back becasue their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents grew up here. The people are dedicated to this church. If this church were to close up the would be at a loss."
The story is the same at the other churches. Membership took a sharp dive about 25 years ago, when black families in this wedge of east Georgetown were forced out by real estate speculators and the influx of affluent whites. But in recent years membership has increased at the largest church -- Jerusalem Baptist, which now has about 700 members, -- and now has about 700 members -- and held steady at the others, which boast between 150 and 400 members each.
The exception is Ebenezer A.M.E. Church at 2727 O St. Nw. The tiny, red-brick church was erected in 1856 and the peeling paint, tattered hymnals and empty pews tell the tale of a dying congregation.
"We've been going down for years," said Webster Sewell, a 79-year-old member who grew up in Georgetown and now returns each Sunday from his home in Silver Spring. "The church is falling apart and we want to renovate it, but the conference (of African Methodist Episcopal Churches) is shy about helping because there's no chance we can get new members around here. If a few more of us older ones pass on, we won't have a church anymore."
Strong leadership is the answer to why some churches survive and others don't, according to the Rev. Ernest Gibson, executive director of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington.
"To have a successful commuter church you need two factors: a deep sense of dedication to the church and a love of the pastor," Gibson said.
The frequent change of ministers at Methodist churches, some observers believe, makes it harder for members to feel the attachment. But deep ties to the church and affection for the minister are clearly present at the other black churches of Georgetown, as is a willingness among members to dig deep into their pockets for the financial support that keeps the churches afloat.
"My religious roots are here, over half my life is here and I love my minister," said Hester Jackson, who has traveled across town for most of the 43 years she's attened Jerusalem Baptist.
It's more than dynamic leadership and fierce loyalty, however, that has stopped members from drifing from the four prospering "commuter churches." The ministers are not above a few ingenious devices, such as Jerusalem Baptist's minibus, to keep their congregation alive.
Jim Johnson, the burly, genial caretaker of Jerusalem Baptist, climbs into the church van at 8 a.m. each Sunday to begin his winding circuit through the far reaches of the city, gathering the flock for Sunday Shcool and services.
Jerusalem Baptist's van usually brings about 15 passengers to church each week, serving as a backup for members who have no other transportation. Alexander Memorial Baptist and Mount Zion also use vans, but most members rely on their cars or public transportation to get to church.
When most of the people joined these churches they lived within walking distance. Marie Fields, an active member of Jerusalem Baptist, grew up a few blocks from the church and walked to Sunday School and choir rehearsal as a child.
"I've been coming here since I was a little kid. I like it and it's not that far by car," said Fields, who drives to church from her home at 5211 11th St. NW, with her mother and 17-year-old daughter.
Jerusalem Baptist draws three generations of the Fields family because "it has a very friendly atmosphere," Marie Fields said."If there's anybody sick or in need of help, someone comes to the rescue."
Besides the sense of home, many churchgoers at Jerusalem Baptist say they're hooked on the preacher the Rev. Clinton B. Washington, a portly, charismatic figure described as "a dynamite person" by another admiring minister.
When Washington, 45, took over the pulpit in 1969 he provided much of the glue that helped the congregation stick together. He came up with innovations like the van and supervised a recent $235,000 renovation of the 59-year-old building.
The remodeling at Jerusalem Baptist is a good example of the financial commitment of members are willing to make, said James Bostic, the church's financial secretary.
"People are really giving," he said, explaining that church officers asked members for $20 a month above their regular contributions to pay for the redecorating, new walls, new floors and new roof.
Leaders at Jerusalem Baptist and Mount Zion ay they have no trouble in meeting their budgets, which at Mount Zion totals $118,00 this year. Most of their revenues is raised through Sunday collections, gifts or special fund-raising events. There are not standard dues and members give whatever they desire, which is below $100 annually for about half the members, but as high as $2,000 for at least one member at Jerusalem Baptist, said James Bostic.
"Some people give like it's 1936 or 1937 -- 25 cents here and 25 cents there. You have to keep informing them of rising prices, gas, electricity, heating bills, the pastor's and organist's salaries," said Freddie King, financial secretary at Mount Zion.
On the other hand, there are a few extraordinarily generous contributors at each church who practice the Biblical custom of tithing, giving 10 percent of their earnings to the church.
At most of the black churches of Georgetown, paying the bills is not a big worry. At Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, however, it is just one of many troubles. Tbe building is deteriorating, membership is down to 56 people and leaders agree its days are numbered.
"We used to have a membership of 200," said Webster Sewell, reminiscing about the years when the church was filled with young people. "Now we get 25 or 30 on Sundays. The only time we have a full church is when someone dies."
The ministers at Ebenezer changed often, which Sewell believes may be part of the problem. The pastor appointed last year is the Rev. Carrington D. Carter, a 23-year-old seminary student who commutes to the church from Baltimore.
Before him, there were 55 ministers since the church was founded in 1856, compared to nine at Jerusalem Baptist in almost as many years.
"Maybe we haven't had the right kind of preachers. You've got to put the blame somewhere," Sewell said.
The likely course, Sewell said, is to sell Ebenezer and try to locate elsewhere. Church directors recently met with A.M.E. conference officials to begin the search for a new site.
If members must scatter to other churches, it would be heartbreaking for Sewell. "I grew up in the church, attended Sunday School for years, my father was buried from here," he said. "I guess it's a little silly for me to hope the church will still be here so I can be buried from it."
It's a downhill struggle at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, but the pride that sustains the other black churches of Georgetown stems from the very reason they were founded in the first place.
Mount Zion Methodist Church, believed to be the oldest black congregation in the city, was organized in 1816 when slaves and free blacks refused to be restricted any longer to the balconies of white churches.The congregation met in several locations in Georgetown, until the present-day building was finished in 1884.
First Baptist Church, at 27th and Dumbarton, was founded in 1862 by the Rev. Sandy Alexander, a former slave and a leader of Georgetown's black enclave. Jerusalem Baptist and Alexander Memorial were offshoots of First Baptist Church, just as Ebenezer A.M.E. grew out of Mount Zion.
A sixth church created by blacks in Georgetown, Roman Catholic Church of the Epiphany at 2712 Dumbarton Ave., also is still active, but today 90 percent of its members are white.
Epiphany changed because there are no "commuter churches" among Catholics, explained lifelong member Cynthia Jackson, who still lives in Georgetown. The Catholic parish system requires worshippers to attend the church in their neighborhood. The black Catholics who left Georgetown joined churches near their new homes and were replaced at Epiphany by new residents in the area. Many of the early black members, however, still are buried from Epiphany, said the Rev. Msgr. Ramon DiNardo, the pastor.
For most of their history, the churches wre the lifeblood of the black community, which constituted about one-third of the Georgetown population at its highest point.
"The churches were the center of life," said Claude Jackson, a Mount Zion member who remembers church-sponsored drama clubs, literary groups and "Tom Thumb" weddings, in which children dressed up for mock marriage ceremonies.
"There was segregation, so you couldn't go to the places downtown for entertainment," Jackson recalled about Georgetown life in the 1940s. "You didn't even have enough money to take the streetcar downtown. The churches provided all the activities."
The number of blacks in Georgetown started dwindling by the 1930s, when their homes were snapped up by real estate speculators eager to turn Georgetown into the fashionable, well-off neighborhood it is today. By 1960, most of the blacks had moved, and the churches were the only ties to their heritage.
As property values in Georgetown soared, so did the pressures on church leaders to sell their land.
Washington tells about the time in the 1960s when a real estate man posed as a minister and tried to convince Jerusalem Baptist leaders that he had a great deal for them.
"He took us to Southeast and showed us a church that was for sale," Washington said. "He was going to buy our church and get us to move. We didn't like the church he showed us and we weren't interested in moving."
Jerusalem Baptist also ran into trouble in the '60s when some real estate developers tried to get the structure condemned because of building code violations, Washington said. The congregation rallied to save it, widening some doors and installing exit lights to meet the standards, Washington said.
Several offers were made to buy Alexander Memorial Baptist and at one point, leaders considered moving the church, said the Rev. James Godfrey, the current pastor.
"They thought it was time to get out of Georgetown. They thought they should go to the black community," Godfrey said. "But they didn't know where they wanted to go."
While relations between the black churches and their white neighbors are cordial, it is rare that a white Georgetowner attends the churches. The black clergymen say their doors are open to anyone, and they can't explain why no whites have joined.
The Rev. Peter Winterble, secretary of the Georgetown Clergy Association and rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, said the lack of racial integration at city churches was a source of anguish for ministers during the 1960s, but today it's more or less accepted. "It's not as much a racial thing as a sociological and temperamental thing," Winterble said.
The ministers at Georgetown's black churches admit they would be more successful as evangelists in neighborhoods with more blacks. But the problem with moving, they say, is that existing members are scattered all over the District, Maryland and Virginia. "There's nowhere else we could move that would please all our members," Washington said.
While tempting offers to buy the valuable church property come in from time to time, church officials find them easy to resist. They are comfortable in Georgetown, even if outsiders who see the lively churches are puzzled by them.
As Washington told his congregants one recent Sunday: "We're here on Sunday, but they don't see us during the week. They see these black folks in Georgetown and they don't know where we come from and what we're doing here. We're mystery folk.
"Well, we'll tell them where we come from," he said. "Our roots are here. And we're going to stay here."