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A black congregation in a beautiful old church on H Street is fighting to preserve its space and identity as the surrounding neighborhood gentrifies. “I need people to understand that the cross is not for sale,” says Rev. Jalene C. Chase-Sands, pastor of Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church. She is referring to the funds her church will be forfeiting by walking away from a 3-year-old arrangement with a church called Table.
Douglas opened its doors to Table, a new and predominately white congregation that has yet to purchase its own building, in 2013. Douglas was struggling financially at the time, so its then-pastor Rev. Helen Stafford Fleming, who has since retired, found a solution in the partnership. “I had to find ways to get the young, white professionals in,” Fleming says. “God said, ‘Go into your community.’ Well, my community’s white. So I had to find a way to get to that community.”
Table began holding services in the sanctuary at 5 p.m. on Sundays, when Douglas members were done using their church for the day. In return for the space, Table would pay Douglas 30 percent of its tithes. The arrangement was made as trendy new stores and pricey condominiums replaced longtime businesses and buildings on H Street, and it allowed Douglas to keep its doors open. As Table grew from 15 members to more than 100, its tithe, and thus its payment to Douglas, increased too. It allowed Douglas, which has about 15 to 30 in attendance each Sunday, to pay for salaries, utilities, and repairs on its building.
But that arrangement appears to be falling apart.
Douglas and Table now have a scheduling conflict that calls into question which congregation controls the church. Their struggle is emblematic of the challenges old-guard D.C. congregations, many of them African American, face in neighborhoods that are changing around the church buildings they own.
As his congregation grew, Table pastor Kevin Lum concluded that his 5 p.m. time slot at Douglas was not ideal. He decided he instead wanted to hold Table services at 10 a.m.—the time the Douglas congregation has been meeting for decades.
Lum researched the H Street neighborhood, his own congregation, and overall church attendance, resolving to push for a morning service for his church, even if it meant a blow to Douglas. “To go where we need to go long term … we need to get rid of our evening services. Evening service really limits your demographic,” Lum said over the summer. “If you look, there’s not many kids and not many families there.”
Lum, who is white, says his research shows that a 5 p.m. service will always attract fewer blacks because of cultural traditions. Blacks, he says, are accustomed to going to church early. “I talked to some friends who were trying to build communities that were more diverse, and it’s kind of hard because African-American culture in the U.S. tends to be pretty traditional faith-wise. And to go to church on Sunday nights is just kind of a weird thing.”
Lum met with Chase-Sands last April to discuss H Street’s demographics, telling her the community needed a multicultural service on Sunday mornings. After their talk, and compelled by Lum’s findings, Chase-Sands agreed to surrender the 10 a.m. slot to Table.
But this meant that Chase-Sands had to sell the idea of a time change to the members of her congregation, who have always attended church at 10 a.m. Fleming, who initiated the partnership, was preparing to retire, and Chase-Sands was transitioning into pastor of Douglas, while also continuing in her other job as full-time pastor at a neighboring church called Community. Both pastors and Lum met with the members of Douglas to explain that the Douglas flock would need to worship in the afternoon.
Antoinette Curry, who was married at Douglas four years ago, says the news of a time adjustment made her feel like a visitor in her own home. “If this is our church, why didn’t we have a say so on the time? If this is our church, why do we get pushed late, and they can come in early?” Though Chase-Sands fielded other similar complaints from her congregation, the pastors moved forward, planning to start the schedule change in September.
It never materialized. “Two weeks before the September launch date,” says Chase-Sands, “[Lum] came to me and said, ‘Well, we’re not launching in September. Maybe in January or February.’”
That moment served as a release point for Chase-Sands. Lum was putting off the time change, and she took his delay as a sign to abandon it. She’d already gone through the trouble to persuade her reluctant congregation. She couldn’t say “never mind” and then drag them through the process again a few months later.
“I said [to Lum], ‘You can have any time after 12.’ He said, ‘Well if I can’t have 10, then I’m not coming back and not paying Douglas anything else,’” Chase-Sands recalls. She felt as if Lum was “dangling money” in her face. Lum later apologized and said he didn’t intend to insult her.
Intentions aside, Lum has not held a service at the Douglas building since September.
To make up for the financial loss, Chase-Sands decided to take a pay cut. She told her church leadership body to use the money that would otherwise go to her and put it toward the utilities. “They said, ‘You know we feel bad because we can’t pay you,’ and I said, ‘Pay the bills; I need you to pay the bills. Do what you need to do.’”
The personal income loss wasn’t an easy sacrifice, but she felt that God was guiding her. “It was more important that the bills were paid and the people of Douglas had a sense of what it meant to be a church and knew that somebody was gonna fight for them.”
Subtle differences between the two congregations had begun to emerge long before the scheduling conflict came to a head. At one point, the Table congregation cleared out a room that was stuffed floor to ceiling with what Lum described as junk, and then installed new flooring. Douglas felt the new church was encroaching on their space.
Coffee preparation proved to be another issue. “So if you walk into Douglas and you need to make coffee, you go in and make coffee,” Lum said over the summer. “But if you’re a member of Douglas and you walk in, first you would greet everyone and go around the room and give everyone a hug, and then you would go make the coffee.” His own congregants, who he describes as young and “type-A,” would march directly to the kitchen. “Going straight to the coffeemaker and not greeting anyone seems to Douglas almost like a racial slap, but I think it’s more of a cultural difference than racial. I have even had to tell members of Douglas, ‘Look, it’s not racial. They are just as rude to me,’” Lum says with a chuckle.
Today Chase-Sands sees the partnership as over, while Lum still sees an open door. Though Lum did not respond to several recent requests for an interview, he said briefly after a Table service in early December, “I’m still hopeful that we will work something out in the next couple of weeks.” The Table website continues to list H Street, alongside downtown and Columbia Heights, as one of the locations for its services. “Our H Street community is launching in early 2017,” the site says. Lum has yet to retrieve some equipment from Douglas, which Chase-Sands has asked him to remove.
Meanwhile, Chase-Sands is considering a plan that would allow musicians and artists to use the church on Fridays or Saturdays. It would be geared to attract people who like live music but dislike bar and club scenes. And an arts partnership would not threaten to encroach on the church’s longstanding Sunday service time.
She acknowledges that if Douglas did nothing to generate more money, then the church would be in deficit. “From a business standpoint, if we continue the way we are, yeah, but the faith I have and the hope I see in people’s faces now? I just feel a way is going to be made.”
The Douglas congregation supports ending the partnership. “This didn’t come as a shock to me,” says Blen Gary, 63, in regard to the two churches splitting. Gary, a Douglas member since 2009, says she always felt Table’s mission was to take over the building, and others shared that sentiment. “They wanted this church for the location. This is a very diverse neighborhood and they wanted this church.”
Chase-Sands, initially uncertain of her decision to cut ties with Table, is now at peace with the choice. “If it means taking a pay cut so that that body of Christ can feel like a body of Christ again without another church having an effect on them, then it was worth it to me.”