The big red church in the heart of Georgetown bears not one plaque, but two, proudly proclaiming its history to passersby: This month, on Oct. 16, the Mount Zion United Methodist Church, the first black congregation in the nation’s capital, turns 200.
But this weekend, Mount Zion began celebrating early. On Friday night, the church held an $80-a-ticket gala at the Washington Marriott Georgetown, and on Saturday, it flung its doors open for visitors to pop in, eat cookies and tour its building at 1334 29th St. NW, technically Mount Zion’s second permanent home since its first sanctuary was destroyed in a mysterious fire in 1880.
Mount Zion congregants marvel that they’ve preserved their church in the heart of Georgetown, where many of its first members once lived but were pushed out as rents soared in the 1930s and 1940s. Even though the vast majority of attendees live in Washington’s suburbs and have been attending Mount Zion since they were kids, they take pride in their sanctuary’s distinctly white Georgetown address. They do not entertain offers from realtors or developers.
“We never use the word ‘sell.’ It was once, ‘Should we ‘relocate?’ And nobody wants to. It’s not an issue for us,” said member Dolores Greene, who lives in Maryland and is a retired senior executive in the intelligence service. “This building is a reminder to people that it took a lot of different ethnicities to build the capital city. African Americans were here, building Georgetown from the very beginning.”
On Saturday afternoon, a few people trickled inside for a peek. One man from Sydney, Australia, an urban planner temporarily based in Georgia, walked through the red doors and wanted to see the sanctuary. So it was up to Janet Ricks and Khari Eyen Zame Johnson to give him the quick tour. Once they walked upstairs, Johnson showed the visitor from Down Under what appeared to be two wooden headstones in a display case.
“What can we derive from this? These are people who couldn’t afford actual tombstones,” Johnson told the man, who nodded quietly.
“And the writing is gone, too,” Ricks said.
The small tour group ambled up the center aisle, where Ricks pointed out a couple of the first rows where she and her sister-in-law sit. (Her relative keeps a Bible next to a pillow that reads: “I’m not bossy, I just have better ideas!”)
“What happened to the original building?” Mark Wisely, the Australian urban planner, asked.
“It burned to the ground,” Ricks said, shrugging her shoulders when asked how.
But look at the balconies, Ricks said.
“The balconies were handmade by enslaved and free men,” she said.
“Has Barack Obama been here?” Wisely asked.
“I suspect he’d come, but there are no places for all of his cars! The location is a challenge.”
The Rev. Johnsie W. Cogman, who in 2011 became the church’s first African American female pastor, said the seemingly minor issue of parking hurts the church’s ability to grow its membership. Right now, Mount Zion attracts up to 80 people on an average Sunday, Cogman said. Churchgoers don’t pay dues, so Mount Zion relies on tithes and other donations or investments.
“Our guests don’t want to have to fight every Sunday for parking,” Cogman said, noting that many attendees drive in from Southern Maryland or Northern Virginia and often get tickets if they stay longer than the two-hour maximum posted on street signs. “Mount Zion used to be this prominent place in Georgetown, and got 200 on a Sunday, and had a membership roll of 600. But then, gentrification happened and the people who used to come here couldn’t because they couldn’t afford it.”
Mount Zion members say the commute to Georgetown is more than worth it. Pamela Carter-Coleman, 60, who lives in the Crestwood neighborhood of Northwest Washington, said she most enjoys helping Mount Zion host a Saturday supper for the homeless. “This is a place to have impact,” she said. “For me, as a lifetime member, it’s important to hold on to your roots, but it’s also important to be a part of the community.”
Mount Zion congregants cook the Saturday meal once a month; other churches handle the rest of the Saturdays. Six Saturdays a year, Mount Zion and nearby Dumbarton United Methodist Church provide the homeless meal jointly — a modern reconciliation since Mount Zion’s founders once belonged to Dumbarton, only leaving because of its once-segregated services.
Mount Zion also takes pride in the role it played in the nation’s slave history and its work in the Underground Railroad. A few blocks away is its cemetery, where tucked in a corner is a brick vault, where members say escaping slaves hid in the middle of the night.
“It still exists — you can still see it and walk by it and open it,” said Johnson, 20, a college sophomore from Silver Spring who was mentored by Mount Zion’s recently deceased historian, Carter Bowman Jr. “They were living a life of enslavement and hiding in a burial ground overnight. I think about it everyday.”
Johnson, one of a small number of college students who attend Mount Zion, tries to encourage other young people to take an interest in the church’s history.
“Many individuals my age aren’t even aware of the church’s existence,” he said. “It’s an important part of the narrative of black history, the African American journey in this country, and in this city.”
Mount Zion doesn’t look too bad for its age. The kitchen just underwent an extensive renovation. But the sanctuary’s plaster ceiling is peeling. Members say they could use more lighting in the sanctuary.
But members like some of the old things. Even though the church has an air conditioning system, Ricks said she asked to preserve the old caged wall fans hung between the sanctuary’s stained glass windows.
“Back then,” Ricks said, “that’s how we got comfort.”