When Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church moved to the 600 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE nearly three decades ago, it was surrounded by urban blight.
But on a recent Sunday, Pastor Alfred Owens wiped a tear from his eyes as he stood along the stretch of Rhode Island that is now home not only to the church, but the church’s food bank, family-life center and thrift shop. Looming over it all: A new street sign reading “Greater Mount Calvary Way.”
“I am overwhelmed by the naming of this part of Rhode Island Avenue Greater Mount Calvary Way,” Owens said. He then quoted from I Corinthians 2:9: “The Bible says eye hath not seen, nor ear heard . . . the things that God hath prepared for them that love him.”
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), along with council members Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large), were present during the May 5 service for the sign’s unveiling, which coincided with the church’s 47th anniversary.
In December, the D.C. Council passed the “Greater Mount Calvary Way Designation Act,” to “symbolically” rename the 600 block of Rhode Island Avenue after the church to recognize its work to revitalize communities in the heart of the city.
“The church has made a critical difference in Northeast Washington,” McDuffie said, while Mendelson proclaimed that “churches are the bedrock of society.”
In the past four decades, Bishop Alfred Owens and his co-pastor and wife, Susie Owens, have gone from preaching to seven people in the living room of their home in Northwest to being the spiritual conductors of an energetic religious community with more than 7,000 members.
Even though the Owens’s church is located in the District, a large portion of the congregation commutes from across the Washington region. Nationally known minister Bishop T.D. Jakes has preached there, and gospel artists such as Vickie Winans have performed. In 2010, Owens was named senior prelate of the Mount Calvary Holy Churches of America. The denomination has more than 100 churches across the United States, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.
To really appreciate the impact the Owens’s church has had on the District, it helps to visit when church services are not being held. In the middle of the week, senior citizens, homeless people and others come to take advantage of the range of services and programs the church offers to the community.
“This program is a great blessing, the fellowship that we get and the programs that are laid out for us,” said Evelyn McKinley, 93, who lives in the Brookland section of Northeast. McKinley is one of about 30 senior citizens who are part of a church program, Young at Heart, that offers food, fellowship and activities for seniors, ranging from Bible studies to dance classes. “We look forward to the first Tuesday of the month because this is when they give us food,” she said.
Florence Turner, 92, who lives on U Street NE, said, “We love to come here to take our exercise, fellowship and to study the Bible.” Marcellina Coleman, 86, said, “I can hardly wait to come down here. We get along here like sisters. We are happy together.”
Minister Daniel Thorton, program coordinator of the Susie Elizabeth Crowder Owens Empowerment Center, said that Young at Heart is one of several programs housed in a block-long warehouse building that also contains a food bank, a thrift shop, a homeless and prison ministry, and a job training center.
“We provide a range of services to more than 500 people in this building alone, and donations are critical to keep our programs going because all of our services are free to the community,” said Thornton, adding that the church has dozens of other programs at its nine-building campus, which stretches along three blocks. Those include Cataada House, an outpatient alcohol- and drug-treatment program, and the family-life center, which is a hub for wellness programs and has a bowling alley, fitness center and dance studio with weekly Zumba classes.
While the church is a venue for people in need, it is also quickly becoming a place for people to exercise their faith through service. Stevey Legters, 44, who moved to the District a year ago from Seattle, works as a volunteer even though she attends another church.
“I have the time, and the Bible says that true religion is to take care of the widows and orphans,” said Legters, who is part of a small army of volunteers that work at the church. Janee Hutchinson, 23, said that she volunteers at the family-life center because she needs work experience. “By placing me in job training, I can get a reference that I can use,” she said.
The area near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station has experienced explosive growth in retail and upscale housing, but Jessie Kelsey, 82, who lives in Northeast, said he is glad that the church has remained in the community.
“It has just been a blessing to have a program like Calvary,” Kelsey said. “I have been in this neighborhood for a long time, and I thank God for this kind of service.”