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Parishioners from the Foundry United Methodist Church apologize for the racial sins of their 19th-century elders.
Dana Robinson stood on the front steps of Foundry United Methodist Church arrayed in a somewhat incomplete Palm Sunday ensemble.
The blond federal worker wore a pink silk jacket over a predominantly navy-blue skirt. Her accessories were simple: a strand of pearls with matching earrings, a dark leather handbag, and sheer pantyhose tinted ever so slightly pink. On her head was a blue hat of the sort that a movie star such as Bette Davis might have worn.
But Robinson was the first to admit that there was something amiss about her outfit: That something was a pair of red-and-black Nike Air sneakers that didn’t quite match her hat or anything else.
“I know it looks hideous, but I didn’t want to worry about my feet today,” Robinson said, lifting one foot in the air to give it a once-over. “What we are doing is much more important—and besides, Jesus doesn’t care what I wear, right?”
Fashion sins be damned, Robinson was not gearing up for that morning’s D.C. Marathon. Last Sunday afternoon, she and more than 150 of her fellow churchgoers marched the 10 blocks from Foundry, at 16th and P Streets NW, to one of the city’s oldest and most prominent black churches, Asbury United Methodist, at 11th and K Streets NW.
The reason: to ask forgiveness for a sin committed more than 165 years ago, when Foundry discriminated against the black members of its congregation. That prejudice led to the creation of Asbury Church.
It’s a dirty little secret that Foundry leaders still claim to not fully understand. Established almost two centuries ago, Foundry was one of the fastest growing churches in pre-Civil War Washington, thanks in large part to an increasing number of black worshipers in its congregation. In fact, according to church historians, blacks and whites worshiped in equal numbers at Foundry during the mid-1830s—a statistic the church, at the time, claimed to have prided itself on.
But Foundry couldn’t cloister itself from the rising racial tensions outside the church doors. At the same time minorities were flocking to the church in growing numbers, Foundry’s leaders were beginning to curb the privileges of its black members. Denied a voice in the leadership of the church, blacks were not permitted to serve as ushers, participate in the choir, or even go to Sunday school. And in a restriction that presaged 20th-century segregation schemes, elders confined black worshipers to the church’s balcony section.
“The truth is that Foundry didn’t make blacks feel welcome, and it’s shameful, just shameful,” says J. Philip Wogaman, Foundry’s senior minister.
By 1836, some of the shunned faithful had decided to construct their own house of God. Though estimates vary, between 50 and 75 blacks split from Foundry to form their own church. They did so with Foundry’s encouragement, to the extent that church leaders even donated seed money toward the creation of a “negro church.” The new church was called Asbury, in honor of Bishop Francis Asbury, a founding father of the American Methodist Church.
But this wasn’t a scenario unique to Foundry and Asbury. Over the past two centuries, the United Methodist Church as a whole has struggled with claims of racism throughout its churches. The results have included several new denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Episcopal Zion Church. In 2000, the United Methodist Church, at a meeting of churches from across the country, held a formal service of repentance to ask forgiveness for racism.
In part, it was that ceremony that prompted Foundry’s epiphany. More than a year ago, Foundry approached Asbury about organizing a service of repentance. According to both sides, the request elicited mixed feelings, in spite of the friendly relationship that the two churches have had for years.
“We’re dealing with what essentially feels like ancient history that nobody in our congregation, not even their ancestors, had anything to do with,” Wogaman says. “In some respects, the fact that we are asking for forgiveness after all these years seems very strange, but what we have attempted to stress is that we can’t move forward without addressing the past. We are really apologizing for Foundry’s history, which has been blighted by this horrible wrong.”
At Asbury, some members of the congregation initially viewed the request with skepticism, but according to Lonise Robinson, the church’s historian, sentiment quickly changed. Robinson, who has attended Asbury for almost 50 years, says that Foundry’s apology, though largely symbolic, is a major step in bridging differences throughout the District, not just between the two churches.
“This is an important day for us as a people, for so many reasons that I cannot even list them all,” Robinson says.
On Sunday afternoon, the Foundry congregation marched downtown, bypassing roadblocks and police lines that had been set up for the D.C. Marathon. During the 20-minute walk, people mostly talked—about work, about church, even about the Oscars.
When the group arrived at Asbury, the two congregations held a joint ceremony in which the Foundry members formally apologized and asked for forgiveness for past wrongs. Although the service was largely filled with positive speeches and somber apologies, Ralph Williams, a black minister at Foundry, was one of a few to offer tough words on the state of church relations in the District, particularly when it comes to race.
What would happen in Washington, D.C., if Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. weren’t our most segregated hour of the week?” Williams asked. “Is that what God wants? What effect is that having on the psyche of our city—of our nation?”
Even after all the display of unity, that’s a question that Asbury and Foundry officials still have trouble answering. What they can say is that, on April 7, the two churches will meet again. This time, Asbury will march to Foundry, where Asbury members will offer a formal pledge of forgiveness to their sister church.
After that, the rest is uncertain, says Eugene Matthews, Asbury’s senior pastor.
“Our hope is that this will prompt a sense of healing not just in the church but in the community, as well,” Matthews says. “Can I say for sure that it will happen? No. But I do feel that we’re off to a good start, and sometimes, it’s the effort that counts.” CP