For 86 years, the Arlington Presbyterian Church congregation gathered in the stone sanctuary near the corner of Columbia Pike and South Glebe Road. Sunday was the last.
More than 80 souls prayed there for the final time in its creaky wooden pews. The rumbling throat of the organ pipes trembled no more after the concluding hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”
“Today we will remember with thanksgiving the many ways in which God has blessed our ministry and our lives in this place,” the Rev. Sharon Core said.
The last service came after what members of the church described as a radical proposal: sell the church and its surrounding property to make way for the construction of an affording housing apartment complex to serve the community.
The idea initially divided the congregation. The drawn-out process — and the prospect of abandoning the building — made some members despondent and they left the church. Others, such as church elder Susan Etherton, saw the redevelopment of the property as an opportunity to help families in need and further the church’s mission.
The congregation will relocate for three years, Core said, as they await the demolition and the construction of a new space to be built where the church once stood. The theme of the service marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
For members of the church, Sunday’s worship service brought finality to a decision four years in the making.
“Today I’m not sad,” said Etherton, who was married in the church in 1992 and whose two children were later baptized there. “But come and see me next spring when they tear it down.”
Others sitting in the pews wiped away tears as the congregation took part in a “litany of leave-taking,” expressing gratitude for the symbols that bonded the members of the church.
“This cross has been a visible reminder of our faith,” said Manfred Soughe, a 20-year member of the congregation, as he stood beneath the wooden beams in the front of the church. “It is also a reminder that death is a part of life and that the Christian hope that is ours transcends that experience. It has been a symbol to all who have worshiped God here of God’s promise of a new life in the here and now.”
Core said that the church’s communal table will be donated for a chapel in a homeless shelter. The cross will be given to local Presbyterian church, as will the organ and its pipes.
“This is such a wonderful opportunity to be generous,” Core said.
The congregation will no longer meet at the church on Sundays, but instead will participate in giveaways and cleanup days until the end of July to prepare the old building for its eventual demise.
The property at 3507 Columbia Pike was sold in December for $8.5 million to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing. It will be razed and replaced with a 173-unit apartment complex for low-income residents. More than half of the new apartments will be studio or one-bedroom units marketed for senior citizens.
Arlington Presbyterian will rent space in the complex for its new church.
The new site will be named Gilliam Place, in honor of a longtime elder of the church, Ronda Gilliam, who became the congregation’s first African American member.
The facade of the apartment complex will incorporate stones that once made up the steeple and exterior walls of the church.
Halfway through the Sunday service, church members stood and carried their hymnals and the bread and wine for communion to their new temporary worship space down the block.
“This building has served as a witness for God’s presence for 86 years,” Core said, before joining a processional out the doors.
As they walked to the new location, at the Arlington United Methodist Center chapel a quarter-mile down the road, some members of the congregation got lost.
But all were ultimately found — and found the chapel — and participated in prayer and Communion in their new temporary sanctuary.
“God remains with us,” Core said.
The congregation answered: “Though we let go of our cherished place.”
Core acknowledged that the Sunday service marked a transition for the congregants. But she pointed out that “Jesus had no fixed place back when he taught. . . . What was important was that the people were gathering.”
Core said that she’s performed countless baptisms and memorial services at the church.
“I value those memories,” Core said. “No one can take that away from me.”