While tambourines were rattling inside Greater Deliverance Christian Center Church of God in Christ yesterday morning in Southeast Washington, a different kind of noise could be heard outside -- the sound of protesters.
More than 30 people assembled on the grassy area across the street from the church to protest a decision by Greater Deliverance and its business partners to raze the Kelsey Gardens complex to make way for a mostly market-rate high-rise.
Kelsey Gardens, a 54-unit complex the church owns, is one of three federally subsidized housing projects near the Washington Convention Center that have failed housing inspections and are facing possible foreclosure by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
HUD agreed in May to wait until at least September to remove subsidies, and to work with tenants and District officials in redeveloping the neighborhood without displacing low-income residents.
But the Kelsey Gardens tenants are involved in a legal dispute with the church over their attempt to exercise the right to purchase the complex.
Many of them signed away that right in exchange for $1,000 each from the property manager, but they have said they were coerced into doing so.
"What do we want? Affordable housing! When do we want it? Now!" protesters chanted.
Howard Tyson, a church deacon, came outside to complain that the loud protest was disrupting the service and unfair to the nearly 80 parishioners who had come to worship.
"The Bible says there's a time and place for everything. This is not the time or place," Tyson said. He asked the demonstrators to stop chanting until the worship service was over, but to no avail.
Some parishioners stood outside the church and shouted back at the protesters, or laughed and danced to the beat of their chants. They declined to be interviewed.
After the church service ended about 1:15, parishioners moved swiftly to their cars, most of which had Maryland tags, and had their windows rolled up while driving past the rally.
"We are going to keep coming back until people speak with us," one protester shouted.
"We will not be moved!" several others chimed in.
John Little, the church pastor, declined to comment yesterday on the protest, as did former D.C. Council member H.R. Crawford, the complex's property manager.
Alexander Padro, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the Kelsey Gardens area, said that some tenants have told Little they were pressured into signing agreements waiving their right to buy the property, but that the pastor has not been responsive to their concerns.
Tenants filed the requisite papers with the D.C. government, stating that they intend to buy the buildings themselves.
The church and its partners, under the name Metropolitan Development LLC, responded by suing in D.C. Superior Court, saying the tenants couldn't pursue a purchase because more than half had signed away their right to do so.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for July 27.
"Hopefully, these tenants will prevail," Padro said. "Otherwise, the neighborhood will never be the same again."
He said he hoped church parishioners would start asking questions of their leadership regarding the decision.
Selma Providence, Kelsey Gardens tenant association president, said the tenants and their supporters wanted Little to come out and meet with them and explain why he won't allow tenants to buy the building.
Although that didn't happen, Providence said she believes some of the congregation members listened.
"I'm sure it touched somebody," she said. "They heard."
Activists for affordable housing have said that gentrification in the District has come at the expense of some of its most vulnerable residents.
Providence said she wanted to affirm the right of the District's low-income residents to stay in areas with signs of revitalization, such as the convention center neighborhood.
"We get pushed aside because we are low-income people? That's not right," she said. "We have to keep on fighting."
Ajowa Ifateyo of Columbia Heights supported the tenants in their protest.
She said she heard about the protest from other housing activists and knew she had to participate.
"You can't not be involved," Ifateyo said. "Any person of conscience has to be out here to help people losing their homes."
Providence has lived in Kelsey Gardens for 29 of her 52 years. No matter what happens, the District will always be her home, she said.
"I'm not moving out of D.C.," the native Washingtonian said.
"We were born and raised here," she added. "God willing, I'll die here."
Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.