Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Lincoln Temple United Church of Christ in Shaw held a special “Celebration of Transition” last Sunday to mark its last service.

The church served Shaw for 150 years.

Located at 1701 11th St. NW, the District congregation was established in 1888. Over the years, it served as a venue for people ranging from civil rights leaders like Julian Bond to famed opera singers like Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman.

But despite its proud history, the church has dwindled to less than 20 members. On Aug. 5, members of the congregation voted to dissolve. “The legacy of Lincoln Temple will continue,” said Rev. Barbara Breland, who summed up her sentiments a few weeks ago in terms of Ecclesiastes 3:1-2: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot.”

Watch video clips from the final service: 

YouTube video

“I got baptized here, I was married here, and I buried my father here,” says Debra Knight, 56, who was one of several hundred people to attend the service last Sunday. “When I learned that this church was closing, I burst into tears.”

From Knight to 101-year-old Catherine Gaines, many current and former members returned to the church for a three hour service. People sang songs ranging from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand.”

A plethora of ministers from across the city took part in the service, and the entire church took part in a responsive reading that chronicled the church’s rich legacy and various ministries. 

“Even if you are not at Lincoln Temple, there is still work out there,” preached Pastor Barbara Breland during the service. “There are women out there being sexually assaulted; we gotta vote; there are people who are homeless, who don’t have jobs, they can’t get health insurance. We have work to do.”

During the Civil Rights Movement the basement of the church welcomed, slept, and fed Civil Rights workers for the 1963 March on Washington. 

Last Sunday, a number of couples reflected on how they had their wedding receptions and began new lives in that space. 

Michael Hargreaves, chair of the Deaconate at Lincoln, said, “We have this beautiful building and we are not sure what we are going to do with it, but we hope that the right mission partner will come along and help us to redeveloped the building in alignment with our mission.”

At one point Breland stood in front of the stage and told a group of children how she will never forget them and all of the church programs they took part in.

J. Houston, 49, a Bowie resident who grew up in Lincoln, was not ready to say goodbye. He paced around in the fellowship hall and just wondered allowed. “The hardest part of this is that the people who build the condos and populate the dog parks don’t know what they are doing,” Houston said. “They are displacing an entire community.”

Breland, who has led Lincoln Temple for the last year, says that the church voted to close because of poor attendance and also because the neighborhood has changed dramatically and the new residents have not shown an interest in coming to the church.

“I wish that things could be different, but the reality of the moment is here,” says Breland, whose congregation is among a number of churches across D.C. to close in the last decade.

“This church has a very rich legacy of social justice and improving the lives of African-Americans, and that legacy will not go away,” Breland says. “For more than 149 years our church has been committed to social justice.”

Terry Lynch, executive director of The Downtown Cluster of Congregations, says, “The story of Lincoln Temple is the story of African-Americans in Washington D.C. While it will soon celebrate its last worship service, its great work will continue to reverberate in many ways—in the city and nationally given its role in the civil rights movement. Its work lives on surely.”

Lynch says that Lincoln is just the latest District congregation to close as neighborhoods in the downtown area continue to gentrify. “It appears that developers are targeting churches for residential conversion, and we are seeing this city-wide, and when a church closes it is like a death in the family for many people. It’s heart-breaking and you feel the loss because this has been their spiritual home for generations.”

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. People who pass by the church can’t help but notice the stone columns, arched windows, variegated brick, and gabled roof.

The congregation has a leadership committee who will decide what will happen to the building.

In a letter to the congregation, Jeanne D. Cooper, the moderator of Lincoln Temple, writes:

“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 a 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.”

Members voted to work with the Central Atlantic Conference for a period of at least one year to explore the possibility of redeveloping or selling the church building.

Cooper went on to say in the letter that after the final service, current church members may join another church, but Lincoln Temple nonetheless has a plan to continue to serve the flock. “Minister Geneva Hudson has pledged to continue to visiting and serving communion to our homebound and hospitalized members. Furthermore, arrangements will be made with a sister church to serve as a new ‘home church’ for those persons.”

City Paper updated this story with new reporting after the final service on Sept. 30, 2018.