St. Matthews Baptist Moves to Prince George's County

Sam Collins | 8/15/2012, 12:04 p.m.

The 104-year-old Church Leaves District for More Hospitable Surroundings

The Rev. Maxwell Washington's sermons always come with a funny story - and he tells them in his own spirited way. For example, during one of his recent Bible study classes, his lesson focused on thrift and the importance of spending wisely. He told his class about the time he challenged one of the church deacons to a bowling match - he admitted that every now and then, he splurges a little, too.

Everyone in the room laughed that evening as Washington expressed his initial surprise at Deacon Charles Brown's bowling skills.

"The first week, I didn't even bowl the whole 10 frames," said Washington. "He kept hitting strikes so I just stopped playing in the sixth frame. I said, 'Next time I would go with my sister.'"

It turned out to be a light moment between Washington and members of his flock.

But what was happening outside of the sanctuary at St. Matthews Baptist Church in Southeast was far from a laughing matter. No longer able to contend with the District's stringent parking restrictions and what comes across as unabashed greed in the name of revenue collection, Washington finally threw in the towel and decided to take what's left of his congregation and move to Prince George's County.

"It's hard to tell when we will move. But in my mind, we should be out in two to three years," said Washington, 75. "Hopefully, within the next few months we will be able to get some permits for our new property."

Outside St. Matthews, the streets bustle with newcomers who dash in and out of The Onyx, a new high rise apartment building, located directly behind the church. To the church's immediate left, a plot of land sits vacant, but placards dot the fence line and announce the advent of yet another high-rise apartment building.

Today, St. Matthews Baptist Church, also known as "the little church on the hill," has a congregation of approximately 250 members, down 100 since 2007 and those numbers continue to go south. The church was founded in 1905 by the late Rev. Isaac Wright who sought to organize a Sunday school mission in Southeast. As the congregation increased, so did the need for a larger space. St. Matthews moved to its current location on the corner of New Jersey Avenue and L Streets in Southeast in 1921.

Washington said the church's mission is to "not just deal with spiritual needs but human needs." In addition to its youth ministry and Bible study, the church helps members with their immediate concerns or refers them to organizations that can.

"The economy is messed up and if people run short or lose their jobs, they can come to the church," Washington said. "We do it the way Jesus would. He wouldn't just be concerned with your soul if you were hungry."

These days, it's not the congregation that's getting bigger. Instead, it's the space that is getting smaller, specifically parking. Problems cropped up in 2006, when construction around St. Matthews started. Gentrification and the movement of 2,000 new residents into the area after the completion of the high rise apartment and the lure of Nationals Park has made parking around St. Matthews a hot commodity, said Naomi Campbell, a neighborhood liaison to Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).