One last time the faithful rose, mounting the steps and flocking into the pews of Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ, one of Washington’s most historically significant African American churches.
They broke bread one last time, stood for the last altar call, celebrated a last baptism for a baby, took the last Holy Communion in a church founded 149 years ago by free blacks and newly freed slaves. The organ was played and the choir sang as the autumn Sunday sun streamed through the historic stained-glass windows, over mahogany-colored benches worn by time and generations.
“It may be the last day, but we can still praise God. Amen?” the Rev. Barbara Breland asked the congregation, which had been preparing — and dreading — this moment for months.
“You are probably feeling like, ‘Reverend Breland, this is our last day in here to worship, this is the last time I’m going to see my friends and worship together. This is the last time I’m going to sing in the choir. This is the last time I’m going to usher. This is the last time I’m going to have a repast.’ ”
“ ‘Reverend Breland, I don’t want to praise. This is not a good time. Why are you pushing me to praise?’ Because Scripture tells us you praise in and out of season. Amen? We are to rejoice and give God praise in all circumstances. . . . Lincoln Temple, we are at the end of our journey. But we are not at the end of God, and God is not at the end of us.”
The death of the renowned church in Shaw — an anchor during decades of segregation, a staging ground for the 1963 March on Washington and a haven during the 1968 riots — is the latest sign of the capital’s changing face as black residents get priced out of this neighborhood and so many others. Black businesses have closed up shop, and black houses of worship have sold their real estate and headed to the suburbs, where most of their congregants live.
At its height, Lincoln Temple drew thousands for its services. The 10,000-square-foot church at 11th and R streets NW, with its Romanesque architecture and acoustically acclaimed auditorium with a balcony, seats 1,200 people.
Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Jessye Norman and Roberta Flack performed in its sanctuary. Famous pastors, including Channing E. Phillips, the first black man nominated for U.S. president by a major political party, preached from its pulpit.
“We had to put chairs in the aisles,” said Rubin Tendai, who served as Lincoln Temple’s interim minister from 2013 to 2016. “It was a silk-stocking church, so to speak. The people had good government jobs. The ministers preached to the head and to the heart.”
On Sunday, several hundred people were on hand to say farewell. Earlier in September, though, when Breland read the Sunday announcements, there were just nine people in the sanctuary.
“If you know what church you are going to,” she told the tiny group of parishioners, “let me know so I can sign your letter” — a form of introduction to their next place of worship. The choir, three women and an organist, sang, “Lord, help me to hold out.”
But Lincoln Temple couldn’t hold out any longer.
The church was founded in 1869 by free blacks and recently freed enslaved people who gathered at 11th and R to attend classes and religious services at the Colfax Industrial Mission.
A year later, the Colfax Mission renamed itself Lincoln Industrial Mission, in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated on April 14, 1865.
The congregation grew through mergers with other churches. In 1929, the current building, designed by Howard W. Cutler in an Italian Romanesque Revival architectural style, was constructed to replace the mission. The church building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
One of its most prominent members was Mary Church Terrell, a racial equality and women’s suffrage advocate, who worked with Ida B. Wells on anti-lynching crusades. Terrell, the first black woman to serve on the D.C. Board of Education, also led a campaign to desegregate restaurants in Washington.
In 1963, people attending the March on Washington camped out in the church auditorium.
“My mom helped prepare breakfast for marchers going to the March on Washington,” said Jeanne D. Cooper, 66, the church moderator and chief lay officer.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and 14th Street erupted in flames, Lincoln Temple opened its doors.
“Fourteenth Street lit up,” Cooper recalled. “Downstairs, we had clothes and food. Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Ture came that day.”
Lincoln Temple’s then-pastor, Phillips, “brought him and Marion Barry in. I shook Stokely’s hand.” Cooper recalled, “I was like, ‘I will not wash my hand for the rest of the day.’ I so believed in what he was doing.”
For Lincoln Temple, the 1994 retirement of its beloved longtime pastor, the Rev. Benjamin E. Lewis, marked the beginning of its decline.
“Maybe I could trace it to that,” said Cooper, who will lead the congregation’s transition team that will make decisions about the building and its contents. Should they sell or donate the church pipe organ, printed music, choir robes, hymnals and pews? What about file cabinets, tables, desks and library? The team will look at “potential redevelopment,” Cooper said, or selling the building, which is assessed at $3 million.
This is what they had worked to avoid as the neighborhood changed around them. From 1990 to 2010, the percentage of African American residents in the historically black Shaw-Logan Circle area plunged from 65 percent to 29 percent, according to census data. Young white millennials flooded into the community.
“D.C. was called Chocolate City,” Cooper said. “Now, it’s Chocolate Chip City.”
The church tried to reach out to new neighbors, Tendai said.
Lincoln Temple designated itself as an “open and affirming” church, welcoming the LGBT community. The church grew a vegetable garden and invited neighbors in for a farmers market.
As condos went up and a dog park opened a block away, Lincoln Temple tried to contact pet owners. “We had blessing of animals in the garden,” Tendai said. “Maybe one or two stopped. Most walked by.”
The church held Saturday evening concerts, bringing in the Gay Men’s Chorus and the National Symphony. People came. “We had repast downstairs after with wine, cheese, crackers,” Cooper said. “I did a little history of the church.”
But no one returned the next morning for Sunday service.
“When holidays came,” Tendai said, “we passed out fliers welcoming them to the church. On Ash Wednesday, we went to the Howard U Metro stop, welcoming them here. We had a block-cleaning and put fliers out. A couple of neighbors said, ‘We’ll be there.’ None showed up that day. I’ll be honest, they were not very neighborly — the new people.”
But as much as the shifting demographics contributed to the death of the church, Tendai said, it was the parking issue that seemed to strike the fatal blow.
Signs that restricted parking, including on Sundays, appeared overnight.
“We came to church one morning and the signs were up,” Tendai recalled. “When we came out, a note was on my windshield: ‘Please take note of the parking signs.’ ”
Even as pastor, Tendai said, “I had to drive around and around, and I couldn’t park. Guest preachers would get tickets.”
Elderly members had to walk several blocks. “A lot of folks said, ‘We can’t park,’ ” Tendai recalled. “ ‘If we park, we get tickets or towed.’ And they stopped coming.”
One minister suggested the church move to Northeast Washington, but the congregation wouldn’t have it.
Metropolitan Baptist, a historic African American church less than two blocks away, sold its building and moved to the suburbs. But Lincoln Temple batted away offers to buy its building.
“We were gung-ho,” Cooper recalled. “Under no circumstances do we want to sell this building or do anything like that. There were people who came and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to have the building.’ We’d say, ‘No, we are not ready for that.’ ”
Membership continued to fall. On any given Sunday, there were “literally two handfuls of members, 10 or 12 worshipers, on a regular basis,” Cooper said.
She joined the congregation when she was 13. Lincoln Temple was where she and her future husband, Terrence Cooper, 68, came for their first date, in 1977, when Jeanne invited him for a concert. They got married there in 1980.
Last spring, Breland met with Cooper and deacon Michael Hargreaves. At that time, the church had $50,000 in its bank account.
“We saw the writing on the wall,” said Hargreaves, a white man who joined the church 10 years ago.
They hired a UCC consultant. They looked at the church’s condition.
The church needed more than $1 million in renovations. A new roof. New HVAC. New walls. Vines were growing into the brick, and the wall upstairs outside the pastor’s study was crumbling.
In June, nine members of the church went on a retreat to a sister church in Silver Spring. An associate conference minister boiled down their options.
“Dissolution,” Cooper said, “was the last item on the list.”
They needed to make hard decisions, Breland said. Sell the building? Merge with another church? Close their doors?
Then one member said, “It looks like our only option at this point is dissolution.”
Everybody got quiet.
“People teared up because it is so painful,” Breland recalled. “They worked so hard and labored so long to keep the church going, and their hopes and dreams were there. They were hoping it would turn around.”
On Sunday, the congregation sang the black national anthem “Lift Every Voice” one last time in the church where the names of men and women born before the Civil War are engraved in its red, gold and purple stained-glass windows.
Members stifled tears as Cooper read a litany of celebration and transition.
“These pews, chairs, windows and the worshipers here today,” she said, “are reminders of the congregations who have been empowered and gathered over the years for the Sunday services that told them they were somebody.”
After a closing hymn and benediction, the organ pipes fell silent.
Catherine Gaines, 101, had been driving herself to Lincoln Temple from Silver Spring every Sunday for more than 60 years. She wondered what she would do next Sunday.
“This is the first time I’ve ever not belonged to a church,” Gaines said. “When I get home today, it’s really going to hit me. ”
Debra Knight, who was baptized in the church as a baby in 1962, was overwhelmed as she walked down the aisle.
Knight, 56, said it was important that she attend the final worship service. Lincoln Temple was where her father, a longtime member, had walked her down the aisle when she got married in 2002.
She carried with her wedding pictures and a wedding program. “There are so many memories,” said Knight, a pharmacy assistant who lives in Northeast. She’d stopped coming to Lincoln Temple after her father died in 2007. “After, he passed,” Knight said, “it was hard for me to come back here.”
Josephine Vines, who joined in 1963, said the closing “is breaking my heart. To leave this church, especially in its 149th year. I didn’t want to dissolve, but we couldn’t do anything about it. I don’t even like to talk about it.” She will go to church someplace else, she said. She just doesn’t know where.
Tendai thought about how he preached his first sermon in Lincoln Temple in 1976, as a student.
“My heart is heavy,” said Tendai, who also officiated the last funeral at the church, last week. “I felt a part of me was dying as the church was dying. I felt the power of death, but I also understood there is a resurrection. Somehow, this church will never die in the hearts of the people.”