The Northwest elementary school and the church right next door are intimately linked. Church members tutor the kids, and the church pays for the bus that carries the children out of the downtown neighborhood to the fields where they can play sports.

But the reason the Garrison Elementary School children are bused is that their own playground is unusable, in large part because Metropolitan Baptist Church members use it for parking Sunday mornings.

And now, some community activists and parents are caught in an intense struggle with the church over that field. Parents want to turn it back into a playground--with the help of a benefactor willing to foot the cost--but the church says it needs the space for parking.

The fight has pitted D.C. school officials against school parents, and neighbors against a church that has played an important role in the Shaw community for more than a century.

"It's more than just parking versus children," Deputy School Superintendent Elois Brooks said yesterday. "For some of these children, the mentoring and tutoring and interaction with members of the church is more important than going out to kick a ball on that field.

"As an African American, what's more valuable to our children, another ballfield or moral character?" she asked. "I dare say an institution that represents a higher standard of value."

The months-long dispute, embroiling some of the city's leading political, school and religious leaders, reflects the tensions that can erupt when different communities have valid but competing interests in an urban area with few large open spaces.

Parents and others, including ANC Commissioner Glenn Melcher, say there is no other large space in the racially diverse area for their children to play.

"It's just outrageous. People in power taking away green grass from children. Imagine that," said D.C. resident Carol Lukaczer.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and others have tried to resolve the dispute but nothing has worked, and some participants fear the battle will get nastier and could end up in court.

But to the D.C. residents fighting for the playground, whose effort was first reported by Channel 4, the situation is simple.

They say the cars have helped make the field unusable. As it is, teams in Garrison's after-school baseball program are bused out of the area to practice--at the church's expense.

"It is an outrage that the children of such a historic neighborhood would have to be bused west of the park to find a decent place to play ball," said Susan Ousley, a Garrison parent.

So when developer David Hudgens renovated part of the school grounds and offered last spring to also seed the field, some parents jumped at the idea. His offer, however, had two stipulations: that cars no longer would be parked there and that he receive an answer by this Friday, before planting season ends.

However, school Principal Diane Worthy supports the church's position, according to her May 7 letter to Metropolitan Baptist pastor H. Beecher Hicks.

Hicks was out of town and could not be reached for comment, and his chief of staff, the Rev. Gloria Miller, did not return telephone calls over two days. But church officials have argued to parents and others that the church has paid the school system to use the playground as a Sunday morning parking lot for more than 15 years--at a cost of $5,000 last year--and that it needs the parking.

Those competing interests put School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman in the difficult position of having to decide whether to renew the agreement when it expired Aug. 31.

In early August, Graham arranged for new parking for church members at the nearby Reeves Center, but it became clear that Hicks viewed it only as supplemental and too expensive. As mediation efforts continued, community members learned last week that a new agreement giving the church parking rights had been signed by the school system's real estate director, Gerald Cooke.

Brooks said the school system would like to upgrade recreational facilities at Garrison but does not want to antagonize Metropolitan and fears the church might leave the city if parking is removed.

She also said officials are pursuing a resolution that will make both sides happy.