The acrimony between Metropolitan Baptist Church and its surrounding neighborhood might be passed off as merely a minor dispute within the Cardozo-Shaw community that shouldn't concern the rest of the District. I'm not so dismissive.
Metropolitan has decided to move away from a location it has occupied since 1882. Were that to actually happen, the church's departure would be no small moment in the city's history. Metropolitan is one of the District's oldest and most dominant black churches. For some of us old-timers who grew up with the church as a frequent point of reference around the dinner table, the thought of Metropolitan passing forever from the midtown Washington scene strikes hard. Yet the tensions between the church and its neighbors--and the decision to pull up stakes--may be symbolic of some of the changes now sweeping through the nation's capital.
One thing is certain: Today's Metropolitan Baptist is nothing like the Metropolitan of my youth.
That Victorian Gothic structure at 13th and R streets NW loomed large in my childhood. Not that I can remember ever setting foot inside the building. My family, along with most black people in our West End neighborhood, worshiped at churches in and around Foggy Bottom. Distance, however, wasn't the only reason we didn't travel from our working-class homes in "the Bottom" up there to Metropolitan.
I'll cut you in on a little secret. Catholics and Episcopalians aren't the only churchgoers with pecking orders--e.g., deacons, priests, bishops, etc.
Baptists also have a hierarchy--only theirs isn't a formally structured ranking of clergy. Positioning is established on other grounds. You see, while Baptist churches are theoretically independent and equal, some are more important than others--the distinction turning less on the spirituality of the minister, the quality of the liturgy or the voices in the choir than on the number and social standing of the people in the pews.
That's what gave Metropolitan stature in our young minds.
My late mother liked to tell the story about how one of her aunts--the one who traveled abroad in the employ of a wealthy white woman--frequently criticized my grandmother for not sending her daughters to Metropolitan, where they could meet some fine, upstanding young "colored" men who were going places. (Instead she married my father, a laborer, which may help explain why I am here late in life sitting in front of a machine using my hands for a living.)
In those days, I knew nothing of Metropolitan's rich history; that it was originally organized as Fourth Baptist Church in 1863 by the Rev. Henry Bailey, a self-taught minister from Virginia, and a few other escaped slaves who had fled to Washington during the Civil War; that it was designed by a pioneering black architect, Calvin T. S. Brent. Those things I learned from reading Washington Post clips.
However, this much I did know as a kid: If you wanted to know where some of Washington's black schoolteachers, lawyers, doctors and undertakers worshiped on Sunday, check out Metropolitan. People like that weren't regulars in Foggy Bottom churches, where sisters and brothers got "happy" during morning service and pastors were known to--oh, well, some things I'll just keep to myself.
Metropolitan still has the reputation of being the place where the black professionals and business types go. Even when the church went through the wrenching experience in 1984-85 of razing its historic building and erecting a new facility, Metropolitan held on to its status as one of the District's most prestigious black churches.
But over the past 20 years or so, something else was happening to Metropolitan--and many other black D.C. churches with middle-class congregations. And it had less to do with changes taking place in the surrounding neighborhoods--the so-called gentrification movement of young white professionals buying in the inner city--and more with profound conversions within the church's walls.
During those tumultuous decades when crack cocaine filled D.C. jails, hospitals and courts, and the criminal justice system ensnared nearly half the city's black male population between 18 and 35, black churches such as Metropolitan stayed put. The same can't be said of their congregations.
Many of those Sunday churchgoers, the kind of people this city needed most--folks of faith who anchored the community with their respect for persons and property and their work ethic, people who were role models and symbols, for instance, of what Foggy Bottom kids could become--quietly packed up and moved out of the District, mostly to the Maryland suburbs, taking with them their middle-class values and middle-class incomes.
Metropolitan takes a back seat to no church in Washington when it comes to community outreach. And even if his Northwest D.C. neighbors don't appreciate him, the Rev. Beecher Hicks has been a major force for progress in this city. But the fact remains that while he and much of his congregation give of themselves to the city on Sundays and during the week, many of them, including the pastor, spend their nights in the 'burbs. That's also true of many others attending top-of-the-line black churches. Don't believe it? Just a look at the license plates around those churches on any given Sunday.
Their hearts may be with their D.C. church, and their memories may be linked to the old neighborhood. But their tax dollars and present quality of life are tied to Maryland or Virginia.
Which makes it all the sadder when I heard a black talk-show host interviewing the Rev. Hicks about the church's clash with its neighbors over an adjacent empty field angrily declare: "Well, those council members who aren't standing up for you can face the voters at election time." Truth is, there are probably more Metropolitan Baptist members registered to vote in Maryland than in Ward 2, where the church is sited.
Metropolitan's relocation outside the city would be a loss, not only of a great ministry, but also an icon for many old Washingtonians.
But as I think of the exodus of black middle-class residents from the District and their resentment over the influx of mostly white young professionals and urban pioneers, I recall what I heard at Francis Junior High School when I left my prized seat in the cafeteria next to Freda Robinson to return to the line for a piece of pie, only to find Bruce Hayes in my chair when I got back. Said he smugly: "If you move, you lose."