A religious group headquartered in a Northwest Washington mansion came under fiery criticism last week from some of its neighbors, who charged that renovation work on the house has caused noise, traffic and safety problems that disrupt and threaten the quality of their neighborhood.
Irate residents of the Brightwood neighborhood vented their anger over the construction at Manchester House, the home of Sufism Reoriented Inc. at 1615 Manchester La. NW., during a four-hour meeting Dec. 8 called by the area's civic association.
The complaining neighbors said the site is only one of an increasing number of residences in the Brightwood area that have been converted into "living-room churches" occupied by religious groups and associations.
At least 26 such churches are in an area about 10 blocks square, bounded generally by Colorado and Missouri avenues NW and 13th and Kennedy streets NW, said Larry Chatman, president of the civic association, Citizens for the Preservation of Neighborhoods. He said those houses have been taken off the property tax rolls because of the tax-exempt status of the religious groups that own and occupy them.
"We have nothing against religion. We are concerned about the preservation of the character of the neighborhood," Shirley Duhaney said at the often-confrontational meeting attended by about 50 persons, including City Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and representatives of Sufism Reoriented.
Brightwood is an economically comfortable, racially mixed neighborhood dominated by large, detached two-story houses, many with broad porches, where residents often have lives for 20 years or more.
Religious groups -- attracted by the spaciousness of the houses and the quiet character of the neighborhood, some residents speculate -- have been moving into the area for more than 10 years. But the number of conversions to living-room churches has accelerated recently, Chatman said.
"We have one today and one tomorrow and one the next day," he said. "It's kind of a creeping effect."
"We as residents in that neighborhood have to look at everything that has the potential of affecting tranquality and safety, and you have to do whatever it takes to limit the impact," Loretta Avent, a four-year resident of the area, said after the meeting.
Besides their general concerns about the increasing number of the churches, area residents are most troubled by the construction at Manchester House.
The Suffism organization is building a paved driveway from Manchester Lane to the rear of the expansive, red-brick mansion along what had been a narrow drainage alley unused by traffic.
Neighbors said they fear for the safety of many small children who play in the area. The L-shaped driveway will enter Manchester Lane near 17th Street, where critics said the increased traffic will exacerbate risks at the already dangerously steep and angled intersection.
Other complaints at the meeting focused on tentative plans to build two parking lots adjacent to Manchester House and to cut down 13 large trees in its front yard, which would add to soil erosion and drainage problems, Duhaney said.They also complained the construction continues seven days a week.
"They didn't tell anybody they were going to [start construction]," said resident for more than 30 years. "We only found [out] when we saw the bulldozers out there one day and the neighbors asked what was going on."
"We understand and sympathize with your anxiety and discomfort due to our failure to communicate well initially," said Allan Y Cohen of Sufism Reoriented. "We hope that by the end of this evening you will realize that the temporary discomfort will be offset by the end result."
Manchester House is the East Coast headquarters for Sufism Reoriented and is the residence of 13 of its 50 or so Washington-area members, according to the organization's president, Ira Deitrick of San Francisco, who was here for the meeting.
All members have access to the house and gather there once a week for devotional activities and study. Deitrick said his organization bought the house in 1980 from two real-estate agents who had planned to tear it down, subdivide the property and build five houses.
Sufism Reoriented has its roots in the ancient Middle Eastern religion of Sufism, which was brought to the Western world in 1910 and "reoriented" in 1952 by Meher Baba, a teacher from India, whose title meant "compassionate father," according to Deitrick.
Avent and others emphasized they were not critical of the religious groups but were concerned about their effect on the neighborhood. "I don't think any of us are against churches," she said. "We've made an investment here.... What impact is this going to have on the appreciation of our property values?"
"We are voters. We are taxpayers. We are permanent residents, and... we are paying for the services that you are receiving," Avent angrily told the seven representatives of Sufism at the meeting.
Not all of the area's residents are troubled by the churches.
"They tend their own business," said Mary Barry who lives two doors away from the Vietnamese-American Buddhist Association, which is at 1400 Madison St. NW. "They're no harm to us. Besides, it brings a bit of diversity to the neighborhood, and the always helps."
Among other living-room churches in the Brightwood area, some are obvious conversions of residential properties, such as the Church of Scientology at 5502 16th St. NW, which has a large wooden sign in the front yard with its name and the words "Visitors Welcome" carved on it.
The National Spiritual Science Center, 5605 16th St. NW, has a stone block in its yard, with the name engraved on a small brass plate. The buddhist Congregational Church of America, 5401 16th St. NW, is marked by a large painted yellow sign.
"In the last nine months, we've had a real outbreak of them," Chatman said. "They're just springing up all over the place."
One of the newer arrivals is the Vietnamese-American Buddhist Association. The group angered neighbors when it set up a large yellow sign and a Vietnamese flag in the front yard in October.
"That was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Chatman, who lives a block away. He said the Buddhist group refused to remove the sign at neighbors' request but was persuaded by a city inspector to relocate it to the front porch.
Chatman said the civic association brought the matter of living-room churches to Jarvis' attention at earlier meetings but received no satisfactory response to its complaints. At last week's meeting, several area residents asked Jarvis to have the construction at Manchester House stopped.
The residents "have legitimate concerns," Jarvis told a reporter. "But my big concern is, if you begin to regulate [churches], where do you stop? We're talking about the freedom to worship as you please. That's the principle on which this country was founded."
"These are very complicated issues, and I can't come here and say that there is right only on your side," Jarvis told the Dec. 8 civic association meeting.
James Fahey, administrator of the District's zoning commission, noted that current regulations permit "a church or other place of worship as a matter of right" in any area of the city, including those, such as Brightwood, zoned for single-family residential use.
"The only way [anyone] could prohibit something like this is by changing the regulations through a request to the zoning commission," Fahey said.
Jarvis mediated an agreement that construction would be halted at Manchester House for at least a day while representatives from the neighborhood, the city and Sufism met again.
Attorney Ruby McZier, a former member of the zoning commission who is representing some Brightwood residents, said she and Sufism representatives met with city inspection, transportation, zoning and other officials on Friday in Jarvis' office, but the problem remains unresolved.
"You have to exhaust administrative remedies before you take legal action," she said.
"It was an extremely positive development," Deitrick said of the meeting, "and we are in the process of resolution."