The Rev. Cheryl Sanders was all smiles as she led a procession in celebration of the Third Street Church of God’s gleaming new $2 million annex and renovated sanctuary on a recent Sunday afternoon.
It was a special moment for the Harvard-trained pastor. The dedication ceremony culminated a 12-year battle to expand the church, at 1204 Third St. NW, and its historic mission.
“We are gathered to dedicate and set apart this building, which God has prepared us to build for the glory of God,” Sanders, the church’s senior pastor, said of the project. Her voice boomed inside the sanctuary, in which hundreds of current and former members and neighborhood residents were gathered after a $1 million renovation.
For years, it felt as if the church would never get to this day. Opposition from neighbors and local officials turned what at first seemed like a simple expansion plan into a struggle over the church’s efforts to enlarge its mission in a residential neighborhood.
“They don’t teach you this in divinity school,” Sanders said of the journey, adding that to finish the project church leaders also dealt with five general contractors, four banks and three architects. “I didn’t take a class on development . . . or gentrification.”
Disagreements over church-related development are not uncommon in Washington. Many established churches have had tense relations with neighbors over parking, construction and other issues. A number of District congregations, including Metropolitan Baptist Church and Scriptural Cathedral, have moved to the Maryland suburbs to pursue their missions in less restrictive settings.
But Sanders and church leaders said they didn’t want to leave the city. The congregation — which dates to 1910 and has called its current location home for nearly 90 years — chose to remain near the busy intersection of New York and New Jersey avenues NW.
“Our challenge was to find a way to reach our new neighbors. I didn’t regard them as enemies,” Sanders said. She said that over the years, the church had bought property in the neighborhood with an eye to fulfilling its social justice mission. “Our building is a silent witness that is saying that here is a church that is going to stay put in the heart of the city.”
When the church unveiled its plan to renovate the sanctuary and add a three-story annex in 2002, there was immediate opposition from some neighbors, property owners and local officials.
Church leaders initially wanted to build the annex on land near the sanctuary property on Third Street, which is in the Mount Vernon Historic District. But they were unable to buy the land, so, as an alternative, they proposed using property the church owns behind the sanctuary. That idea ran into trouble because it called for the demolition of historic structures the congregation bought years ago. In addition, residents wanted to make sure that a renovated sanctuary and a new annex would adhere to historic-preservation guidelines.
“All along we wanted to be a good neighbor,” Sanders said. “We were trying to develop our property and do our ministry.”
Church leaders felt boxed in. A remaining option was to build the annex on the church parking lot. It was a choice that was difficult to accept, because parking was needed for members who drove to Sunday services.
The congregation petitioned the city for permission to put a new parking lot on another part of the church property. But local officials and preservationists opposed that idea because it, too, would have required tearing down structures that were designated historic, in this case, three townhouses.
“These buildings are contributors to the historic District,” said Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. “Just because they are owned by a congregation doesn’t mean that they are church property. They purchased them as speculative development opportunities, and whether they want to tear them down or make it a parking lot, they are still speculative properties.”
So church members relented and agreed to build the annex on the former parking lot and to forgo replacing the lost parking spaces. From Sanders viewpoint, it was a way to remain true to the church’s mission while also respecting the ideals of the community.
Sanders said that the community meetings, hearings and other challenges were necessary to fulfill the church’s long-standing mission. It was the vision of Rev. Samuel G. Hines, who pastored the congregation from 1969 to 1995, to create a sprawling campus of homes and church buildings called “Reconciliation Square.” At one point, the church owned about 11 properties in the area.
Sanders acknowledged that the neighborhood had gentrified and that the change had made realizing the vision more difficult.
“We never wanted any special favors or to change the rules,” Sanders said.
Neighborhood residents said that they were sympathetic to the congregation but that they didn’t believe that historic structures should be torn down to clear land for parking.
“After 1968 riots, no one wanted to live in this area, but the churches were the ones that stayed,” said Alex Padro, chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6E. “In most of the cases, there is a desire to tear buildings down in order to make space for more parking, but it is my belief that historic buildings should not be used to make way for parking.”
The outcome did not dull the enthusiasm of the congregation’s dedication ceremony for the annex weeks ago.
“I’m not going to deny frustration, but if it’s God’s work, it’s going to get done,” Sanders said. “But the opposition and the setbacks, they all fade in comparison to the sense of achievement and accomplishment if you’re doing God’s work.”