I had a chat with Glenn Melcher, a white resident of the Shaw neighborhood who successfully sued to stop the powerful black Metropolitan Baptist Church from using a predominantly black elementary school playground for a parking lot on Sundays.
My only interest was in Melcher and how he went about taking on the church. At this stage of the game, I think it's too late to sermonize--as the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks did from Metropolitan's pulpit a few Sundays ago--about a white takeover of the city.
Melcher, as I see it, has offered an important lesson about political action, civic responsibility and enlightened self-interest--the application of which is essential for strengthening democracy, for blacks and whites alike.
This is not to say that I don't care about convenient parking for churchgoers, especially the elderly. But there is something to be learned in this episode about how to better protect them, too.
When Melcher was elected an advisory neighborhood commissioner in 1996, he did what a lot of people who had served on the ANC had not done: He took the job seriously.
He worked weeks on end trying to figure out how this city ticked and how to change it to suit the needs of his constituency.
His idea of what to accomplish had nothing to do with a desire to "take over," and everything to do with trying to realize a personal vision of service to the city.
"When I was 11 growing up in Bowie, I'd slip away from home on my bicycle and use my allowance to catch a bus to the District," Melcher recalled.
This was in 1971.
"I was always fascinated with the city," he said. "It was just the most interesting place, with the most interesting people. And I knew I wanted to live here someday and be a part of what made it such a great place."
The third time he made the bus trip, however, his mother found out and "tanned my hide." But the burning apparently just made his heart grow fonder.
In 1985, as a law student at Catholic University, Melcher and his brother pooled their money and purchased a house on Westminster Place between Ninth and 10th streets NW in the Shaw neighborhood.
They fixed it up and sold it. Melcher used his share of the profits to buy another house on S Street NW, just a few blocks away, where he, his wife, Lynette, and their 2-year-old daughter, Cosette, now live.
"I take great offense at being called a carpetbagger," he said. "I've been in this city only seven years less than Reverend Hicks."
When neighbors complained to him this year about parked cars tearing up the Garrison Elementary School playground, Melcher began a search for who was in charge, no easy task given the District's convoluted bureaucracy.
"It took hours just to get a handle on that," he said. "Then I just started writing letters: to the elementary school principal, to the school superintendent, to the mayor's office. And when I got no response, I'd write more."
Writing letters of protest is a nuts-and-bolts political activity, and few have been willing or able to tackle the job with the gusto and perseverance that it warrants.
Of course, it helps that Melcher, 39, is a lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department's tax division. But you don't have to be one to learn how to use the power of the pen.
Melcher also opened his home for neighborhood meetings. Providing a space for political strategizing is also essential. It takes a lot of effort and even courage to let strangers into your private environment, but the reward is a coming together of people for a stronger sense of community.
Melcher did this. And other concerned residents followed suit. Suddenly, parents who ordinarily didn't speak to one another were speaking, and children who did not regularly play together were playing.
"We now have a collective vision that we can work together to realize: seeing our children play on grass instead of kicking their balls in unsafe streets," Melcher said.
To complement the letter-writing campaign and the living room strategy meetings, Melcher drew on his legal skills.
"I spent hundreds of hours on preparing the lawsuit," he said. "I wanted to do it right. I wanted my case to be so tight that it wouldn't even be necessary to file it."
His interpretation of District law was that any agreement to use a school playground would have to be compatible with its normal use as an educational facility.
"To me, a ballfield and a parking lot are mutually exclusive. I was even prepared to bring in a turf grass expert to testify that if you park on the field, you kill the grass."
Last week, Melcher dropped the lawsuit after church officials agreed to stop parking on the playground.
To be sure, there are plenty of black lawyers who could have done the same thing, except that most of them now live in the suburbs.
"When I moved into Shaw in 1985, some of my neighbors were the last of the remaining black middle class, and most of them eventually left," Melcher recalled. "I don't begrudge their leaving. They wanted greener space for their kids, so they moved out of the city to find it. We want the same thing for our kids. It's just that we intend to reclaim the green space that's already here."