When Metropolitan Baptist Church was rejected as an historic landmark two weeks ago, its pastor, the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., was gratified; the decision will make it possible to tear down the century-old red-brick church built by ex-slaves and erect a modern sanctuary on its site at 1225 R Street NW.
"I feel good for the people" who have contributed money for the new $3 million building despite economic hard times, Hicks said last week as he sat in his office behind the pulpit of Metropolitan, one of the oldest black churches in the District.
The minister said the 6-to-4 decision by the District's Joint Committee on Landmarks should end the dispute caused by some members' efforts to preserve the flat-fronted Victorian Gothic church, and clear the way for the modern brick-paneled structure designed by D.C. architects Bryant & Bryant.
"I don't want it to appear as though I'm fighting any of my members," Hicks said. "Now is the time for us to join forces and move forward."
Instead of subsiding, however, the turmoil over Metropolitan's future seems to have grown, and at the center of the controversy is Hicks' style of leadership -- called "progressive" by admirers and "authoritarian" or "dictatorial" by detractors.
His opponents say they are concerned that Hicks is pursuing building plans that do not have the confirmed support of a majority of the congregation and that the new church building is beyond the financial means of the membership.
Wilma Harper, a longtime Metropolitan member, criticized Hicks in a statement that she said represents the views of about 200 members who support preservation of the existing building. There are about 2,500 members of the church. Harper's statement complained that the membership is not adequately informed about major issues including church finances. Harper said she considered Hicks "a dictator."
On the contrary, said Charlotte Spann, 50, who has been involved in Metropolitan all her life, "Pastor Hicks . . . has brought to the church progressive and innovative ideas. He has implemented them. . . . His style is to move forward."
The Metropolitan controversy is not Hicks' first experience as leader of a congregation divided over its future. When he was pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Houston, Tex., also a Civil War-era black church, before coming to Metropolitan in 1977, Hicks advocated a plan to lease the church site. His actions as pastor were criticized by some members there, too.
Articulate and well-educated, Hicks is known for his bold, assertive manner. The Louisiana-born, third-generation Baptist preacher, is steeped in church ritual and tradition, but says he is committed to building a church for the future.
"There is a high and noble heritage in my family of work in the church," said Hicks.
A speech and dramatic arts graduate of the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, Hicks earned a master's degree in theology and a doctor's degree in divinity from Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y. He later studied Yoruba theology in Nigeria and African traditional religion in Ghana.
The author of a book entitled "Images of the Black Preacher: The Man Nobody Knows," Hicks describes the Metropolitan dispute as typical of ambiguous attitudes church members often hold toward their ministers.
The historical role of Baptist preacher as leader "is never questioned," Hicks said, "until there comes an issue in which someone feels he has been mistreated. But as long as it redounds to their glory, they want him to be in that position of authority and leadership. We have no bishop or pope, so the power resides in the pastor."
The emotionally charged issue of whether Metropolitan deserved landmark status was aired at a Sept. 21 hearing. The Joint Committee heard impassioned arguments for preservation and strong appeals against it.
Preservationist members, supported by the Logan Circle Citizens Association, said Metropolitan should become a monument to its designer, pioneering black architect Calvin T. S. Brent, and its founders, a group of poor and illiterate slaves who escaped to Washington during the Civil War. Opponents said the termite-damaged building is structurally unsafe and inadequate for the congregation of 2,500 members, and lacks the historical or architectural distinctiveness worthy of a landmark.
On Oct. 20, the 10-member panel voted 6 to 4 against granting landmark status, citing among its reasons that the 1882 building is not an outstanding example of black churches of its era.
According to newspaper accounts at the time of the dispute in Houston, Hicks opposed the application for landmark status of Antioch Baptist church and supported a 99-year lease of Antioch's land to developers beginning at $120,000 a year -- an arrangement that in effect would be a sale. The membership, after months of strife, voted down the proposal.
Among those opposed to the lease arrangement were descendants of the founding pastor, the Rev. Jack Yates, who sought historic landmark designation to preserve Antioch. Martha Whiting, a granddaughter of Yates, told the Houston Post at the time that Hicks and the church board were "trying to rush the lease through before" the church became a landmark.
When Texas landmarks officials nominated Antioch as a national landmark in December 1976, Hicks and board members demanded in a lengthy telegram that the church be removed from the register, on the grounds that the application had not been sought by the church's leadership.
"It just seems as though history is repeating itself," said Whiting's daughter, Sammie Ellis, who now lives in Washington, "only here the outcome is different. I had hoped there would be the same level of concern for heritage . . . that we found in Houston." A few months after the lease proposal failed, Hicks left Houston to become pastor of Metropolitan here.
"It simply muddies the issue" to bring up Antioch, said Hicks, who refused to discuss the Antioch controversy, commenting only that he had a "good experience in Houston." He said he did not leave Houston because the lease plan failed. "What I did five years ago is unimportant," Hicks said.
Former Antioch member Richard Ward said supporters of the lease did not have adequate plans for building a new church.
"I could not go along with all that deception and what I call pigeon dropping," said Ward, who after 64 years left Antioch and joined a Methodist church in Houston.
James B. Jones, a former dean of the education school at Texas Southern University who is now an official of Antioch, said he opposed the lease, although he and Hicks were and still are friends.
Although he described Hicks is a "great pulpiteer" who galvanized Antioch, Jones said he hears no regrets over the decision to save its building.
Antioch, built in 1875 by freed slaves, was the first black-owned structure in Houston and long a center of community life in Freedmen's Town, a black neighborhood that has since been displaced by modern buildings.
Today, the church that Hicks wanted torn down is an historic landmark. Perched on its less than two-acre site that is valued at several million dollars, it is an anomaly surrounded by skyscrapers in the heart of downtown Houston.
Soon after Hicks' arrival in Washington, Metropolitan undertook plans first to renovate, then to demolish, its sanctuary. As in Houston, this plan has stirred strong criticism among some members of the church.
Wilma Harper, in the statement for her group, said Hicks' plan showed little regard for "the history and culture of black people generally." Hicks responded that his record of concern for that history and culture refute this criticism.
"To tear down Metropolitan and rebuild at this time would be catastrophic," said Hicks' predecessor at Metropolitan, the Rev. E.C. Smith, who was the church's pastor for nearly 50 years, and is still a member. Smith said he believes most members "would like to have a new church, but they feel it is too much to do now."
Metropolitan member Henrietta McNair is one who would rather have the church spend more money on social programs. "We do not even have a nursery school," she said, adding that the church cannot afford the $19,000-a-month payment needed to repay the $1.5 million construction loan which Hicks said has been secured. She said the church also has other financial obligations:a $1,200-a-month mortgage payment for the Manchester Road NW parsonage where Hicks lives with his wife and three children; Hicks' $28,000 salary and the $18,000 salary for a pastoral assistant, plus travel and other expenses.
Harper's group said Hicks has refused members an adequate chance to voice their objections; that a
.5 million construction loan was approved by only "a questionable majority" of 400 members who were present and voting on the issue; that the church constitution has been revised in a manner contrary to church rules to increase the pastor's authority, and that the finance committee has been dissolved.
Hicks said the complaints raise "the specter of financial incredibility," which he said is another common charge against preachers. "But those who know the church's methods for handling money know that I don't count the money, I don't bank the money and I don't have the combination to the safe."
"Those who claim they did not have an opportunity to vote are not witnessing the truth," said Hicks, who maintains that a majority has approved the demolition, rebuilding and loan plans in three separate meetings. "The procedure has been fair from the beginning," he declared, adding that those opponents never asked for a head count at the meetings.
Hicks, who seemed unperturbed and somewhat amused by the criticism, said the dissension comes from an erratic minority of no more than 75 members. He denied that he has usurped the authority of church committees. He said Metropolitan did not have an adequate financial system when he arrived, and that its annual income of $117,000 then has increased to nearly $400,000, plus a $300,000-a-year building fund. The finance committee was dissolved because under a new financial system "there was no need for it," he said.
"I think there're some people who want to have their will prevail. There's always a movement against what's perceived to be the power structure," Hicks said. "It's unfortunate that I'm such an ogre."
Confident that he is pursuing the best course for Metropolitan, Hicks views the Joint Committee's vote as final.
"God has strange and miraculous ways of doing things," Hick said. "In a way, I see it as a benediction upon the ministry." CAPTION: Picture 1, The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., presiding behind his glass-topped desk, is called "progressive" by his supporters, but "authoritarian" by his critics. By HARRY NALTCHAYAN -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Houston, which Hicks sought to replace with a more modern structure when he was its pastor, has been named a historical landmark. AP; Picture 3, A third-generation Baptist preacher, the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., says that he "feels good" for the people who have raised money toward a new $3 million church to replace the Metropolitan Baptist Church at 1225 R St. NW, but he hopes that the turmoil among his parishioners over the plan to replace the present building will end so the church's members can "join forces and move forward." By HARRY NALTCHAYAN -- The Washington Post; Picture 4, The stained-glass window, in the Victorian Gothic, red-brick church that was built by former slaves in 1882, is titled, "Jesus knocking at the door." By JOEL RICHARDSON -- The Washington Post; Picture 5, no caption, By JOEL RICHARDSON -- The Washington Post