Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ was packed with people and tearful emotions Sunday as hundreds gathered for the final service of a church that has been a beacon of faith in the Shaw community for 149 years.
During the three-hour service, people sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as well as “Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand.” Then a plethora of ministers prayed, one person was baptized and then entire church took part in responsive reading that chronicled the church’s rich legacy and various ministries.
“It was amazing and a blessing. Even in times of struggle God still showed up,” said Rev. Barbara Breyland, pastor of Lincoln Congregational, who preached Sunday in a sanctuary that was filled with more pastors and visitors than the usual entire Sunday congregation, which had dwindled to as few as 20 people.
“After today, I won’t have a job,” joked Breland during the service.
For Breland and members of her the congregation in the Shaw community, the “Celebration of Transition” was a sad milestone for a church founded in 1888 and located at 1701 11th Street NW.
During the civil rights movement, the basement of the church welcomed, slept and fed civil rights workers for the 1963 March on Washington and the sanctuary held many concerts that featured opera singers ranging from Marian Anderson to Jessye Norman.
But despite its proud history, members of the congregation voted Aug. 5 to dissolve amid its declining rolls, as the surrounding neighborhood has changed dramatically and new residents have not shown an interest in coming to the church.
“We hope that God continued speaks to us and helps us to preserve the legacy of the church,” said Deacon Michael Hargreaves, chair of the Deaconate at Lincoln. “We have this beautiful building and we hope that we are not sure what we are going to do with it but we hope that the right mission partner will come along and helps us to redeveloped the building in alignment with our mission.”
Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, was among the many community leaders to attend the service Sunday. He lamented that Lincoln is just the latest District congregation to close as neighborhoods in the downtown area continue to gentrify.
“It’s sad,” Lynch said. “The story of Lincoln Temple is the story of African Americans in Washington, D.C.”
One person not happy with this change is J. Houston, 49, of Bowie, Maryland, who grew up in Lincoln.
“The hardest part of this is that the people who build the condos and populate the dog parks don’t what they are doing,” Houston said. “They are displacing an entire community.”
The Lincoln building earned a place on the National Registry of Historic places in 1995. The structure, built in 1928, was designed by architect Howard Wright Cutler in the Italian Romanesque Revival style.
In a letter to the congregation, Jeanne D. Cooper, the moderator of Lincoln Temple, wrote:
“The following circumstances led to the realization that we no longer are a viable congregation: dwindling finances, low membership, limited resources and engagement, demographic changes within the surrounding community and an undetermined mission and ministry. In light thereof and after considerable discussion, prayer, and a request for guidance from the Potomac Association and Central Atlantic Conference, the church is closing.”
During the repast after the service, Cooper and her husband joked about how they had their first date in the church during a concert.
“I have been a member of this church since 1965,” she said.
From Catherine Gaines, 101, to Debra Knight, 56, many current and former members came back for the final service.
“I got baptized here, I was married here by Rev. Channing Phillips and I buried my father here,” she said. “When I learned that this church was closing, I burst into tears.”