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D.C.’s Calvary Baptist Church celebrates 150 years

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It was the spring of 1862 and President Abraham Lincoln was struggling to hold together a nation. Baptists in the District were also divided. Many supported Confederate forces mobilizing in Virginia, while the church stood with the president in opposing slavery.

“It was a perfect time to start a congregation,” said the Rev. Amy Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church. “The only thing certain was uncertainty, but 12 men and 13 women had a vision that something might be born in the middle of that chaos.”

Butler’s sermon came during the final day of a year-long observance of the 150th anniversary of Calvary Baptist Church, a congregation whose red brick sanctuary has been standing at Eighth and H streets NW in Penn Quarter since the Civil War.

According to church historians, Amos Kendall, a prominent District businessman, led a break from the E Street Baptist Church after that congregation opposed praying for the Union forces during the Civil War. Founded by abolitionists, the then-white Sixth Street Baptist Church was later renamed Calvary Baptist Church.

Kendall donated money to purchase land for the church’s first sanctuary, which was dedicated on June 3, 1866, according to a history of the church authored by Carl W. Tiller and Olive M. Tiller.

From opposing slavery in the 1860s to supporting the civil rights struggles in the 1960s, Calvary has always been more progressive than traditional Baptist churches.

In 1889, the church started Sunday school classes for the surrounding Chinese community, and in 1908 it founded a Chinese YMCA. Calvary Baptist was also an early opponent of the 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act, which limited Asian immigration to the United States.

Calvary played a big role in supporting women who began moving to Washington to fill federal jobs vacated by men going off to fight in World War I, said Bob Abernethy, a veteran journalist and host of the PBS show “Religion and Ethics.” Abernethy’s grandfather was the Rev. William S. Abernethy, who pastored the church from 1921 to 1941. His grandmother taught one of several Bible classes the church offered for women.

“There must have been 100 members of that class,” Abernethy said. “Most were single women. They came from all over the county. Many of them were uprooted. My grandmother became a mother to scores of these women.”

One newcomer, 34-year-old Jessie Burrall, who had moved to the District from Minnesota to take a a job with the National Geographic Society, also helped teach the classes, Butler said.

What began as Burrall’s “Sunday School Class No. 24” in 1917 grew from six to more than 1,600 women over a three-year period. As a result, the class was renamed “The Burrall Class” and featured in a 1920 Good Housekeeping story.

Although its pews have held many distinguished members over the years , including former President Warren G. Harding, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes and various members of Congress, Calvary Baptist has long been a refuge and advocate for the poor and oppressed.

The church integrated in 1954, well ahead of many others.

Deacon Harold Ritchie, 79, who is African American, became a member of Calvary Baptist in 1987. But while Ritchie eventually joined the staff and now directs the church’s gospel choir, he says he had to grow spiritually to appreciate Butler, who became the church’s first female senior pastor in 2003.

“At one time you had to be at least 60 years old to hold office and there was no such thing as a woman senior pastor,” Ritchie said. “I was raised in West Virginia, and when she came here I told her, ‘I didn’t vote for you, because where I grew up women were not supposed to be senior Pastors.’ She said, ‘I am going to show you something,’ and she did.”

On Sunday, Ritchie played the keyboard and led the gospel choir in the singing of the gospel tune “Soon and Very Soon,” as more than 300 people feasted on shrimp kabobs, roast beef and plenty of homemade dishes prepared by the church’s Latino ministry.

Calvary Baptist’s welcoming stance toward the broader community attracted church member Allyson Robinson four years ago.

“My family and I come from a Baptist heritage, but we are a lesbian couple with four children and we found a place where we can be ourselves and honored for who we are and still worship in our traditions,” Robinson said.

The church’s membership peaked right after World War I at more than 5,000, but then the numbers started to decline as the city changed. Butler said that in the late 1990s, membership dropped to fewer than 50 people, but in recent years the number has increased to 272, with about 200 people attending church every Sunday.

Ritchie credits Butler with leading the church’s revival. “This church for many years was dying,” he said.

Butler concluded her sermon by challenging members to continue the church’s legacy.

“What will they say about us in 50 years?” she said. “Will we choose the radical, risky way of Jesus as those who came before us did? I hope that they will say that we loved and welcomed whoever came through those doors . . . that they will say we loved each other deeply and that we cared for each other in good times and bad. It is up to us to start living out our history right now.”

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