One hundred and fifty years ago, J.J. Lehmanowsky gathered a group of his fellow German immigrants at his home to propose a German church in Foggy Bottom.
More than 60 persons signed the church constitution Lehmanowsky wrote in 1833, initiating the church named Concordia, meaning "harmony." In the early days the newly formed congregation met in one another's homes or at the city fire house. The emphasis was on the communal spirit among the large German population then living in the capital. So proud were they of their cultural heritage that they called the settlement in Foggy Bottom, "Hamburg."
This German community that created and supported Concordia United Church of Christ, as it later became, has long since been dispersed, but its traditions have been kept alive in the modest, comfortable little brick structure the church has occupied since 1891 at 20th and G streets NW. It is the only church in the area offering open services in German on a continuing basis, every first and third Sunday of the month, and services in both German and English, four times a year.
Few other churches have rejected religious partisanship as strongly. From the very beginning, members did not like to think of themselves as Lutheran or Reformed, but wanted to bridge the gap between these two Protestant denominations.
On Sunday, the 1 1/2 centuries of unity and progress were celebrated in a German-English service by the United Church, which was formed by the Concordia Church's 1975 merger with the neighboring Union Methodist Church.
Time was when Concordia couldn't pay the pastor's salary. "God forbid that should happen today," said the Rev. M. Michael Morse from the pulpit at the sesquicentennial service, evoking hearty laughter.
Morse said he had heard the church's success attributed to the stubbornness and persistence of the German people. Then facetiously: "But I don't know how much of that is truth and how much is folklore."
In the old days there were businesses like Abner-Drury Brewery, emitting its pungent odor of hops, and the Gas Works, letting a foul smell from its tanks, that helped to keep the immigrants employed and their property reasonably priced.
"Foggy Bottom" is no longer a derogatory name so given because of swampy land in that part of town. Neighbors like the State Department, George Washington University, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund make it a swanky, booming part of town.
Many church members were pushed out of the area into Maryland or Virginia, church historian Carla Ockershausen said, as the sleek glass-and-steel buildings housing government agencies, corporations, and the ever-expanding university supplanted individual homes.
The church not only survived the changes around it, but lived up to the spirit of its name.
"We've been able to keep the German congregation a viable part of the church," said John Cooper, a lawyer and former Union Methodist member. "But there is more of a blending than either side thought at the time of the merger."
Neither side survived "unfettered" or "unblemished," Cooper said, but what emerged after a series of crises was a group with a new personality and a common interest.
The German-English language anniversary service seemed to exemplify the oneness of the congregation. At one point, the congregation sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" in German and English simultaneously.
The highlight of the service was two readings by special guest Welf-Otto von Meding, a counselor of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany. The first was from a Bible presented to the church by Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany in 1908 and the other from a Bible given to the church by German President von Hindenburg in 1933.
At an anniversary reception after the service, Morse read congratulatory letters from as near as down the street and as far away as Canada. Von Meding presented a document preservation container to Pam Gardiner, president of the Church Council of the United Church. Vital records from both churches were placed in this specially bound case to symbolize their union, according to Gardiner.
Church members' pride in their internal harmony is matched by their concern for community and social needs. "My feeling is that any church ought to be concerned," said Bill Humphrey, head of the Social Concerns Committee and a World Bank employe. "The needs just overwhelm us; our problem is how do we choose among the various ones?"
Humphrey said the church has an emergency food pantry, open two Saturdays each month that distributes 240 bags of groceries a year.
Church dollars and volunteers also support a food program for homeless women. Operating out of the First Congregational Church at 10th and G streets NW, it serves 50 hot meals five nights a week, Humphrey said.
The United Church also sponsors needy students at the Chaldean Syrian High School in Trichur, Kerala, India, providing funds for uniforms, meals and other needs.
The United Church had many causes for celebration, not the least of which was its history as an experiment in ecumenism that worked.
William Grass, 86, who was honored during the service as the oldest member from the United Church of Christ side of the merger, said, "Both churches had a remarkable history and when the folks from Union Methodist came down to worship with the folks from Concordia . . . we were all just good Christians."