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Divinity Online Edition - Fall 2006

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In the Nation’s Capital
Faithful members partner to develop the new
Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church

By Donna M. Claycomb D’00

Five of the faithful members of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church here in Washington D.C.—Mabel, Howard, Lois, Mary Elizabeth and Ruth—joined me for Bible study today. It was a small group, as the other regular participants have left town in an effort to escape the grueling heat that pervades Washington in the summer months.

Donna M. Claycomb
Claycomb

Mabel joined the church in 1940 and has served on just about every committee in her 66 years of membership. When I arrived at the church last summer Mabel was the chair of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee. She discerned in November, however, that at the age of 97 she was too busy to continue in this role. Mabel tells me often that the opportunity I have to serve at Mount Vernon Place is unlike any other appointment in the country, and these words have proven to be right so far.

Howard just celebrated his 98th birthday. He came to Washington as a government worker and joined the church in 1945. Howard has an incredible heart for those who are less fortunate, and he is one of the founders of the church’s Geriatric Daycare Center, a ministry for low-income, older Washingtonians. Howard drives downtown from his Methodist retirement home in Northern Virginia each week and recently informed his family that he wishes to live until he is 110 because “turning 100 is no longer impressive.”

Lois is the chair of the finance committee and has served in this role for decades. She and her sister moved to Washington from Mississippi and Lois joined the church in the ‘60s, making her a relative newcomer. She’s now 93, with a sense of humor that can make me laugh for hours. She has an opinion about everything, and she has told me more that once that I am the reason for her high blood pressure. Her secret to living a long life may be the fact that she begins nearly every prayer with the words, “Dear Lord, it’s me, Lois, again.”

Mary Elizabeth is our membership secretary. She is a dedicated teacher of the Bible and also does an amazing Susannah Wesley act. She has taught me about what it means to faithfully support the church with one’s prayers, presence, gifts and service. Mary Elizabeth tells me that she prays for her pastor each day, and I believe her without a shadow of a doubt. When she had me over for dinner recently, there were more than a dozen different dishes on the table filled to the brim with homemade goodies. When I asked her who else was coming to dinner she replied, “Just my pastor!”

Ruth joined the church in 1942. She is one of the few members who still lives in the church’s neighborhood, and she walks everywhere. Ruth recently accompanied me to the theatre where we saw The Da Vinci Code. When we left the theatre she saw firsthand how close her church is to one of the hottest new neighborhoods in the city: the nightlife was thriving as we walked back to the church at 10:30 p.m. Ruth remembers well the growing membership her church enjoyed during “the war,” when thousands came to Washington as government workers. She says often that if we “just had another war then the church would grow again.”

These faithful folks watched as Mount Vernon Place UMC’s membership swelled to 4,541 members in 1960, and many of them now drive past 10 other churches to gather with the remaining 50 active members here on Sunday mornings.

These beloved friends have witnessed massive changes in the church’s neighborhood. They will be quick to tell you about what happened during the riots of 1968, when a lot of Washington burned to the ground. They can describe to you how prostitutes used to work nearby and how the city’s violence and crime sent many people away from the church. Still, these members keep coming. And, while it once looked as if their church might soon close, these faithful folks have made difficult decisions to keep their church open for decades to come.

People are now flocking to downtown D.C. Huge condominium and apartment buildings are being developed all around the church. The new Washington Convention Center is now across the street from the church. Chinatown, one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city, is three blocks away. And the value of Mount Vernon Place’s property has sky-rocketed to the point that there are not enough spaces in the charge conference forms to insert all the numbers.

The congregation voted in 1995 to sell a portion of its property to a developer and to form a partnership with Wesley Theological Seminary and Asbury United Methodist Church. Later this year, two of the church’s educational buildings will be razed, and a developer will build a 12-story building on the church’s former property. The church will use the proceeds of the property sale to complete more than $8 million worth of needed repairs on their stunning 1917 sanctuary, to buy back 25,000 square feet in the new, mixed-use building, and to create an endowment that should sustain the historic property in the decades to come.

When the project is completed in 2009, the church will also become a centerpiece for an urban ministry program at Wesley Seminary, with 18 students living in dormitory rooms directly above the church offices. In addition, Mount Vernon Place, a church founded in 1850 as the representative church for the Methodist Episcopal Church South, is forming a partnership with Asbury UMC, the “representative church for African American Methodism,” and Asbury will have space adjoining the church’s offices. This one-of-a-kind partnership brings together a seminary and two churches with deep and rich histories in an effort to revitalize the church. Together these groups will struggle with what it means to faithfully serve Christ in the center of the city, a city where the White House is less than a mile down the street one way, while the U.S. Capitol is an equal distance the other way.

Mabel, Howard, Lois, Mary Elizabeth and Ruth are my partners in developing this new church. They will soon have to vacate their church for almost a year while renovations are completed, gathering in a trailer on the church’s lawn for Bible study and worshipping at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons at Asbury UMC until Advent 2007. They are learning about things like the “emergent church,” seeker friendly services, and the value of having a Starbuck’s in the new building. And while they remind me often that change is not easy, especially when one is 80 or 90 years old, they are willing to take a risk, trusting that God is not finished with their church yet. Rather, the Kingdom of God is, indeed, at hand.

The Rev. Donna Claycomb D’00 is the pastor of Mount Vernon Place UMC in Washington, D.C. To learn more about her ministry, visit her blog Words from Washington or the Mount Vernon Web site.


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