It was with some trepidation that I visited Metropolitan Baptist Church a few Sundays ago, having written in 1984 that the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. was wrong to tear down his old church, which had been erected by freed slaves, just to have one that was bigger and swankier.
Surely, when the announcement came for visitors to stand, Hicks would single me out as one of the naysayers. God forbid that he should recall my words before a congregation of nearly 4,200 souls.
"At many Washington churches," I wrote, "construction fever often rivals fervor for the Holy Spirit . . . . With some pastors still fighting to maintain the prestige and political power that were theirs in the days before black mayors, the magnitude of their monuments remains the most visible sign of their success."
Never in his 25 years as an ordained preacher, which he celebrates this week, had Hicks encountered the turmoil brought on by the Metropolitan Baptist Church building program. He nearly lost the church's most loyal members, to say nothing of his own health and ministry.
But drawing on his mastery of language, honed as a college speech and dramatic arts major, as well as his scholarly knowledge of theology, Hicks did what he does best: pastored and preached, his sonorous Baton Rouge-bred voice thundering through the new sanctuary, inspiring skeptics and true believers alike.
In a sermon responding to criticism that preachers like him should be reeled in by stronger church trustee boards, Hicks bellowed his baritone retort from the pulpit.
"The culture wants a preacher it can control," he said. "The culture does not want a preacher of power. It wants a preacher who will be victimized by his own vacillation, compromised by his own compromises; they want a willy-nilly, foot pattin,' head scratchin,' chicken-eatin' preacher whose ethics will always be in conflict with his appetite, so they can tell him, 'Preacher, shut your mouth.' "
The sermon was titled "How to Silence a Preacher," but after he delivered it, Hicks's congregation only wanted to hear more.
To be sure, it would take more than one sermon to quell the controversy over the building program. At the heart of it was a Victorian Gothic structure at 13th and R streets NW, which had been built at the direction of a 28-year-old black architect more than a century ago.
Hicks, who was 34 when he took over the ministry of one of Washington's largest and most prestigious black Baptist congregations in 1977, said the old building was irreparably infested with termites, and made plans for a new $3 million church with a 60-foot bell tower and a gym.
"A preacher without a church is like a farmer without a field," he said.
The Sunday that I had attended the old Metropolitan Baptist six years ago, the guest speaker, the Rev. Dr. Wendell C. Sommerville, 83, a black church historian, had flicked a disdainful eye at Hicks while delivering his sermon. "The trouble with some people -- like your pastor -- is that they are always in a hurry . . . . " Sommerville said.
A few Sundays later, Hicks preached back.
"If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, 'The pastor is impatient,' " Hicks said. "It's sad but true that we pastors have not achieved the perspective of Paul. Patience and contentment are not often included in a preacher's parcels in a storm situation. But more important than either is endurance."
Before the clouds of controversy had cleared, there would be unfounded attacks on the church's fiscal integrity, a revolt by some trustees and threats of mass defections. Hicks was hospitalized with dangerously high blood pressure.
Yet, to say Hicks endured would be an understatement. The five-day celebration of his ordination anniversary and his 13th pastoral jubilee, which begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday with a reunion of ministers ordained by Hicks, is testimony to the triumph of his spirit.
Under Hicks's leadership, Metropolitan has become one of the fastest-growing Baptist churches in the United States, including among its members a newly repentant D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. Almost immediately after the new church was completed in 1985, it was filled to capacity.
Hicks, a third-generation preacher, has written four books, including "Preaching Through a Storm," a masterful text on church conflict management from the pulpit.
During my recent visit to his church, the sight of elderly women seated comfortably on cushioned pews, looking almost heavenly in a softly lighted, acoustically delightful sanctuary, was proof enough that Hicks's vision for the church had been inspired.
When he shook my hand after the sermon, there was no hint of rancor in his voice. Far from being bitter, Hicks was simply satisfied to have seen yet another Sunday, after a quarter of a century of preaching through the storms.