The historic D.C. church with its soaring columns and richly colored stained glass was celebrating its 100th birthday Sunday. But there was no cake, no balloons, no rejoicing.
Instead, as the congregation listened to the pastor’s sermon, they gathered in a somber mood and utter silence.
This church’s birth, 100 years ago, wasn’t something they felt called to celebrate. The roots of this church are a source of unique shame.
“Our church was part of a denomination in which every bishop was a slaveholder. Lord, forgive us and those who came before us,” the members of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church read aloud Sunday. “We gather in a building constructed as a monument to America’s original sin.”
Mount Vernon Place, looking out over Mount Vernon Square in downtown Washington, is today mostly politically progressive and ethnically diverse. But on Sunday, the Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol recounted the roots from which it grew.
The story begins in 1844. A bishop of the Methodist church inherited slaves and the denomination voted, in a contentious referendum, to ask him to resign from serving as bishop until he was not a slaveholder. To many Southern church members, who saw slavery as their civic right, the resolution was unacceptable. They left the church, forming their own denomination with more than 500,000 members.
That denomination was the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
By 1850, the new proslavery denomination decided to build a “representative church,” to be the seat of their denomination in Washington. The congregation formed before the Civil War.
The building took longer. When that “representative church” was finally built, it was 1917. That’s the august building that overlooks Mount Vernon Square today, where the modern-day members of Mount Vernon Place offer showers in the basement to homeless neighbors and teach children of numerous ethnicities that the pink giraffe toy and the blue hippo and the red elephant are all just as valued, even though they’re all different colors.
The Southern denomination merged with other denominations in 1939, and this church has long been part of the United Methodists, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in America. The pastors who have led this church have taken pains to liberalize its politics and diversify its still-majority-white membership for many decades now.
The challenge for today’s members, upon the building’s 100th anniversary, was determining how to address the sins of ancestors whom they’ve already so fully broken with that many members didn’t even know about the church’s history at all.
They decided to host a service of repentance.
“Those words — Methodist Episcopal Church, South — that are engraved in stone over both main entrances of this building are indeed the result of people who believed that they could take whatever their neighbor had, including their neighbor’s black body,” Sokol inveighed in her sermon.
“Here we are. Here we are,” she said, throwing her arms wide and waiting in silence for a moment. “Here we are in a building created out of disordered desires.”
Then, young and old, members gathered in a lengthy line to sign a banner saying, “We repent for our roots in white supremacy.”
Sokol asked that anyone interested in joining a committee to figure out their next steps toward repentance, like anti-racism activism, indicate so on the prayer cards in the pews.
Thomas Mills, one of the churchgoers who led the repentance ceremony, said he’s still trying to figure out what actions he and others should take to remedy the wrongs of racism. It’s become a subject of intense study for him in recent years. Born and raised in Newfoundland, Mills, 60, rarely encountered anyone who wasn’t white. But then he traveled to Washington to spend a long weekend visiting a friend eight years ago — and on the trip, he met one of his friend’s friends, a black man. They kept in touch. And then they fell in love.
His life changed completely: He married the man, moved to Washington and started to grapple with the story of race in America. He’s been doing a lot of reading.
“It totally changes how you view everything — Black Lives Matter, everything — because now it’s your family,” Mills said.
After the 2016 election, he felt he understood his adopted country even less than before. That’s when he started going to church.
On Sunday, he stood unsteadily on a wooden stool and fumbled with a ziptie to hang the banner. Kimberly Burge stood at the opposite corner, affixing the banner right next to the 1917 cornerstone, laid a hundred years ago on this exact date by the founders the members were now rejecting.
Burge, 48, said she too joined this church after the election, when she was angry that white evangelicals, including the Southern Baptist community she grew up in, had heavily supported Donald Trump. Time and again this year, she has found herself needing a Christian community that shares her values.
“Charlottesville last night just made it so vivid,” she said, speaking about the return of white supremacist marchers to the city where a demonstrator is charged with killing a counterprotester during violent confrontations this summer. “This isn’t about the past.”
Burge told the congregation during the repentance service not to focus on the sins of their ancestors alone: “It’s about the lives that are at stake now. It’s about our own souls.”