Shiloh Baptist Church, one of the District's oldest congregations, is poised to welcome worshipers tomorrow to a new $12 million sanctuary, six years and many prayers after the church was severely damaged by fire.
"We are opening our doors for worship and offering our lives in faith," said the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, pastor of the 135-year-old church founded by former slaves shortly after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Week-long dedication activities will begin at 8:30 a.m. tomorrow with a march through the Shaw community, then a 9:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony and a service in the 1,300-seat sanctuary, nearly twice the capacity of its predecessor.
The new church, at Ninth and P streets NW, combines modern technology with historic elements that reflect Shiloh's African roots and commitment to the city.
"The building is a reaffirmation of our belief in the city of Washington, and this is just a beginning of our renewed effort to address issues in our community such as poverty, social justice and homelessness," Smith said. "Our church has been known for its outreach, and we want to build on that legacy."
The congregation has supported the "rights of all disenfranchised persons" since its founding in 1863 by 21 former slaves from Fredericksburg, Va., Smith said. During Reconstruction, the church became a refuge for freedmen. In the 1960s, it was a meeting place for civil rights leaders and hosted such luminaries as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Whitney Young Jr., founder of the Urban League.
The size of the congregation peaked at more than 5,000 in the 1970s, before Shiloh and other churches began losing people who moved to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Today, about 40 percent of Shiloh's 3,500 members -- a figure that includes children and shut-ins -- live outside the District, said Smith, who credited the church's "core membership" with keeping Shiloh strong throughout the years.
That core group includes many black professionals who attend services at Shiloh from across the Washington area. Among them: Marion Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund; D.C. Superior Court Commissioner Anna Blackburne-Rigsby; and Wilhelmina Rolark, former D.C. Council member and widow of newspaper publisher-philanthropist Calvin W. Rolark.
Businessman Kent Amos, president of the Urban Family Institute, a national child advocacy organization, was chairman of the building project.
There are so many lawyers at Shiloh -- 70 of them -- that they have formed a group called "The Legal Minds of Shiloh" to provide counseling for church members.
Since the 1991 fire, which erupted during an organ recital, the congregation has been worshiping next door in the gymnasium of the church's Family Life Center, a recreational and educational facility.
Although the majority of the work on the new building was completed weeks ago, church officials waited until everything was ready and decided to mark the occasion with a week-long celebration.
"This is not about a new building," said trustee Barbara Williams Whitener, of Silver Spring. "We are celebrating God's goodness to this congregation."
Access to the new sanctuary has been restricted throughout the three years it has been under construction, and many Shiloh members will be seeing the new worship space for the first time.
Last month, during a tour of the building, Smith said he had urged the congregation not to "slip into the edifice complex" and forget the church's main focus, its ministry. But this week, the pastor couldn't contain his excitement.
"I can't believe this is real," he said, as workmen behind him put the finishing touches on the 30,000-square-foot facility.
The sanctuary, with its 52-foot ceiling, massive horseshoe-shaped balcony, large stage area, recessed klieg lights, dangling microphones and bulbous sound baffle over the pulpit, looks as much like a formal concert hall as a traditional place of worship.
But Smith, 49, said a great effort was made to retain a sense of the church's past while looking toward its future.
"We've tried to preserve the past but provide a modern look," the pastor said, pointing to elements preserved from the old building: two brass angel candelabra -- once gas but now electric -- that have followed the congregation through various relocations since 1880; chandeliers; and turn-of-the-century stained-glass windows, which were disassembled and rebuilt with new leading and darker flesh tones for the biblical figures.
The organ, designed in the 1960s by church organist Henry Booker, survived the fire. Before the old building was demolished, the organ was dismantled and shipped to Canada, where its manufacturer refurbished the pipes and added new stops to increase its range. Reinstallation and tuning took eight weeks.
The organ was returned to the same place as before -- against one of three walls saved and structurally reinforced to preserve the historic exterior. But it appears less prominent than before because the overall space is larger. Mike Amos, the architect, designed the sanctuary's new shell to extend into what had been a lower sanctuary -- the basement area where the electrical fire started in November 1991.
Amos, who joined the church last year, was battling cancer as the structure moved toward completion and had been unable to monitor the progress of the work. A few days before his death during the Christmas holidays, Smith said, Amos came to the site by cab, and construction workers took him into the building to see how his dream had come together.
Smith is especially proud of the modern stained-glass window behind the 140-seat choir loft. A contemporary artist, with theological guidance from the pastor, has created a nine-panel window that tells the story of African people and their journey from collective slavery to individual prosperity in the United States. The window features geometric patterns from the Ndeble people of Zimbabwe in southern Africa and multicolored hands representing the church's racial and ethnic diversity.
Pearl L. Bailey, who joined Shiloh in 1951 and lives in Northwest Washington, said there were "a lot of mixed emotions" after the fire as the congregation struggled to make some major decisions about its future.
For one thing, the church had lost its fifth pastor, the Rev. Henry C. Gregory III, to cancer the previous year. After a contentious search for Gregory's successor -- Smith was chosen from a pool of more than 100 candidates -- the congregation was just getting used to the new man. Smith had come from Nashville only five months before the fire, arriving with a more charismatic preaching style than expected and controversial ideas that did not sit well with some of the old guard, especially ordaining women as deacons.
But it was the blaze that caused the greatest consternation. The fire did not destroy the old sanctuary, but it severely damaged the floor (the ceiling of the basement sanctuary) and made the late 1800s building structurally unsound. The congregation had to decide whether to try to repair the scarred structure or build a new sanctuary in its place.
Tearing down a building many members had grown up in, been baptized in and married in was almost too much for some to bear, said Arthur Henderson, a lifelong member of Shiloh who lives in Fort Washington.
Others feared the church could not handle the debt of either alternative. At the time, contractors estimated it would take at least $1 million to repair the existing sanctuary -- no one knew what unexpected costs the aging structure might incur -- or $5.5 million to erect a new one.
After much discussion and soul-searching, more than 500 of 700 members meeting in the gymnasium in March 1992 voted to build a new sanctuary.
"I remember most vividly the majority vote to go forward," Bailey said. "From that point on, the leadership did much to strengthen us spiritually. We are people of faith. We're doing what we are charted to do. God will walk with us."
Some disgruntled members left Shiloh for other churches, though it's difficult to say whether they left because of the building plans or whether they simply did not approve of the new pastor.
"You know how churches are," Bailey said, referring to the discontent many people experience when any congregation gets a new pastor. To qualify for a 15-year building loan with Riggs Bank, the congregation had to come up with one-fourth of the estimated cost, which had grown to about $12 million by the time plans were completed, Smith said. Through pledge drives and special offerings, the congregation raised $4 million -- $1,143 for every man, woman and child in the church.
At the same time, the church each year exceeded its $3 million operating budget through weekly contributions and revenue from an on-site restaurant and memberships in the Family Life Center, the pastor said.
"We have labored as a congregation and sacrificed over the last six years to see this day come," member Charles D. Smith, of Fairfax Station, said of tomorrow's ribbon-cutting ceremony. "Shiloh has been an anchor in the District, and this new building shows that we are here to stay." Inaugural activities will continue throughout the week and conclude next Sunday with dedication services featuring officials from the two denominations with which Shiloh is affiliated, the American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. ** SHILOH: A BRIEF HISTORY 1854 -- Black members of the Baptist Church of Fredericksburg purchase building from white members for $500 and rename it Shiloh Baptist. 1861 -- Union troops enter Fredericksburg and occupy Shiloh, using it as a hospital. Membership is 750, mostly slaves and the remainder free blacks. 1862 -- 400 members accept the Union Army's offer to provide safe passage to Washington for any blacks, slave or free. Several begin holding prayer meetings in a shanty on L Street between 16th and 17th streets NW. 1863 -- 21 ex-slaves from Fredericksburg establish Shiloh Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., and ordain the Rev. William J. Walker as its first pastor. The church buys a small frame building on L Street NW. 1868 -- Shiloh builds a larger frame building across L Street and replaces it in 1883 with a two-story brick church after membership grows to 800. 1924 -- Despite a controversial split, which causes the church to lose members and its second pastor, Shiloh continues to grow and moves into a larger sanctuary at Ninth and P streets NW. It purchases the building from Hamline Methodist Church, which moves to 16th Street NW. 1930 -- The Rev. Earl L. Harrison becomes Shiloh's fourth pastor and stays until his death 41 years later. Under Harrison, the congregation expands its programs, retires its debt and acquires additional properties. 1972 -- Shiloh names the Rev. Henry C. Gregory III, a former Harrison assistant, as its fifth pastor. Gregory's main legacy is the church's Family Life Center, a recreational and educational facility established in 1982. 1991 -- Five months after the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith takes over Shiloh's pulpit, a fire breaks out during an organ recital and severely damages the building. The next March the church votes to replace the damaged building with a new one. 1998 -- Shiloh dedicates new $12 million church building. CAPTION: The Rev. Wallace Charles Smith is pastor of the 135-year-old church. CAPTION: The Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, Shiloh's pastor, walks through the new sanctuary. "I can't believe this is real," he said of the 30,000-square-foot facility. CAPTION: Figures in a stained-glass window have been given African American likenesses. CAPTION: The $12 million sanctuary at Shiloh, one of the city's oldest and most influential congregations, was built after the old one was severely damaged by fire. CAPTION: This stained-glass window in the new sanctuary represents black history and the spirit of universal understanding.