For more than a century, Metropolitan Baptist Church was one of the premier churches in Washington. And for nearly 40 years, the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. forged a reputation as a “preacher’s preacher,” gathering a flock of as many as 7,000 people at the red brick church at 13th and R streets NW. It was a must stop for local politicians during election seasons, and sitting presidents, including Bill Clinton, would attend services there.
Now, the congregation is meeting in a D.C. school building, its membership down by nearly 70 percent. An unfinished $30 million sanctuary in Prince George’s County is under threat of foreclosure. And Hicks has announced his retirement.
Some former members say perhaps the church overreached. But its decline coincided with a financial crisis that rocked the nation’s investment and real estate markets, taking down churches across the country.
In the Washington area, Progressive Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Md., which owed more than $2.86 million on its mortgage, went into foreclosure in 2009. The Ark of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012. Last year, Light Global Mission Church in Fairfax County filed for Chapter 11 reorganization.
“No place was immune,” said Robert F. Cook, executive vice president at Reliance Trust Co., one of the largest providers of corporate trust services for churches that issue bonds and the lender working with Metropolitan. “That has been true for churches.”
Cook said churches were seeing their collections drop by as much as 30 percent.
In 2009, Hicks described the situation this way: “Very often, the choice is extremely stark: ‘Shall I place food on the table for my children? Or shall I place money in the plate as I’ve been instructed?’ That’s not an easy choice to make.”
All Hicks wanted to do was lead his historic congregation to a gleaming new sanctuary, one befitting the heights his religious community had reached. He even had a name for Metropolitan Baptist Church’s proposed home in Prince George’s County: “God’s Land in Largo.”
“We wanted to expand our ministry,” Hicks said. “We had purchased a parcel that was suitable for our ministry simply for the purpose of reaching a wider population.”
But in the midst of the financial crisis and unable to obtain more financing to cover what church officials say were cost overruns, construction on Metropolitan’s planned 150,000-square-foot sanctuary halted. The congregation was left without a permanent home.
Now, the congregation founded 150 years ago by freed slaves is at a crossroads. As leaders begin to search for a new senior pastor, many former members and church leaders are asking questions about why Metropolitan’s once-promising future faded.
Although some look optimistically at the future, others say the once glorious vision of a mega-church in Largo may never come to fruition.
“When one of your oldest churches leaves town, that is like a monument moving out of town,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the city’s voice in Congress. “It was a real blow to lose it. I hated to see it go, but it went.”
Many current and former members of Metropolitan are still saddened by the church’s decision to move to the suburbs. Its decline in membership and influence is a source of pain for many who once flocked to the church to hear one of the country’s preeminent theologians.
“It breaks my heart to see them in this situation. . . . They should have stayed right in the city,” said a former member of the church, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It will take a unique man or woman of God to bring it back to where it was.”
Hicks clings to faith that the church will survive.
“What we are is beyond bricks and mortar, which is something that over time will decay,” said Hicks, who in 1993 was voted by Ebony Magazine as of one America’s “Fifteen Greatest African American Preachers.”
Currently, the church is meeting at the historic Armstrong Manual Training School in Northwest Washington. In Largo, the church building remains unfinished.
The unrealized vision challenges Hicks, who announced last month that he has Parkinson’s disease.
“I don’t think what has happened can be measured by the building,” Hicks said, “or the fact that it stands today in an incomplete form. We know that one day God will have God’s way.”
Despite the flourishing congregation the church had assembled just north of Logan Circle, Hicks was certain by the late 1990s that the church needed to relocate. Many of its members had moved to Prince George’s, and pressure from new neighbors over Sunday morning parking convinced Hicks that the church needed more space.
In 1999, according to an annual report, the church voted “to step out on faith in search of an unknown land on which to build a new church.”
In 2000, Metropolitan bought 34 acres in Largo for $3.5 million. That same year, the church, which received most of its revenue from tithes and offerings, began raising money for construction at the new site. “We were not leaving our membership,” Hicks said in a recent interview. “We were going to it.”
But some members questioned the move, anticipating problems the church would later encounter.
“I voted in favor of building a new campus, but not leaving the city and moving to Maryland because of the historical fact the church originated in the city and it is known as Metropolitan of Washington, D.C.,” recalled Leslie Talley, 54, a former member. “To lose that history, to move out of the city was unsettling.”
In 2004, the church broke ground in Largo. But its fortunes began to turn. In 2006, the congregation sold the church on R Street for $5.5 million and leased back space from the new owner, Unity of Washington Church. That same year, Metropolitan secured a $30 million mortgage on its new “tabernacle.” Church leaders cut spending, and the next year Hicks made a public plea for more donations.
“The task before us is achievable only as a collective effort,” Hicks said in a digital video. “This is not a half-hearted appeal. Every member of Metropolitan must willingly sacrifice and give and make the vision a living reality. The goal before us is $10 million over the next few years.”
In 2008, Metropolitan moved out of the R Street location after its lease-back deal with Unity ended. The church has lost thousands of members since that move. Hicks said the church now has about 2,000 members.
“When they moved, it broke up the church,” a former member said. “It is so sad they are now relegated to an elementary school auditorium.”
And then, more problems: Construction in Largo hit cost overruns, and Hicks and the board of trustees realized they needed an additional $15 million to finish the project. At the same time, the financial crisis that upended the world economy dried up credit.
By 2009, Harry Jones, chairman of Metropolitan’s board of trustees, told members that church leaders had approached more than “40 prospective funding sources, including banks, credit unions, and boutique financial firms specializing in church financing in an effort to obtain these funds.”
The church reported that it received $2.8 million in tithes and $720,387 in offerings. In that same period, the Hope Fund, the church building fund, raised $1.2 million.
Jones remained hopeful, according to the 2009 annual report. If the church was able to secure the additional $15 million to pay “outstanding construction related obligations,” he said, it would take six to 12 months to complete the building. “After completion of the project,” Jones wrote, “the Church will seek to refinance all of its debt in 2011.”
From 2011 through 2013, the church continued to try to raise money, but it was unable to obtain that additional funding and was unable to repay its loans. In February 2013, the church put its property on the market for $17.9 million.
Several churches and developers have expressed interest in the property, said David S. Iannucci, economic development adviser to the Prince George’s county executive, Rushern L. Baker III. “It is at a critical location that has great value commercially — if not by a religious organization,” said Iannucci, who remarked that the county is concerned about the building sitting vacant. “The property has been vandalized. People have taken metals — copper piping, electrical wire and whatever they can for scrap purposes.”
On March 11, a foreclosure case was filed in Prince George’s County Circuit Court against Metropolitan. Hicks referred questions about the foreclosure to Jones, chairman of the church’s board of trustees. Jones declined to comment, citing the litigation.
On a recent Tuesday night, about 30 loyal members gathered for Bible study at “Miracle Plaza,” a church-owned office complex near the unfinished temple. They sat under fluorescent lights in a conference room. They sang songs of praise, prayed and listened to a sermon on fasting.
After Bible study, Deacon Virgie Jones, 84, who has been a member of Metropolitan since 1941, put on her coat and hat and picked up her black gloves. She explained the church’s importance.
“It has really meant my life,” Jones said. “I was 11 years old when I joined. All of the friends I met through Metropolitan, and some are still here.”
Jones said she was not bothered by the lack of a permanent building. “I go to church to hear, ‘Thus said the Lord,’ ” Jones said. “Not having a building has never bothered me. I feel that the Lord will put us where he wants us when He gets ready.”
As Jones talked, trustee Dempsey W. Cherry, 79, explained that Jones “was one of the first female deacons ordained at Metropolitan.” And they both talked about how Hicks was in the forefront of ordaining women as ministers.
What happened with the new building was in the past, they said. Now, they said, they have to move on. “In this transition period,” Cherry said, “this is a time of fasting and prayer.”
The search committee, he said, has 90 days to compile a list of nominees for a congregation vote on a new leader.
“It is not for me to say” who the new leader will be, Hicks said during a recent interview. “It will come from the loins of the Metropolitan family.”
Hicks explained that the church’s survival will be on “God’s terms and not our own.”
“Metropolitan may never again be the church where thousands flock on Sunday morning, but it can be the church where hundreds of thousands come to experience the Gospel through unknown and uncharted idioms,” Hicks wrote in the church’s Miracle Magazine. “We are not defeated. We are not in despair. We are not perplexed. We are not forsaken.”