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You probably don’t aspire to be an ongoing forum for neighborhood feuds, but the two responses from Luther Place Memorial Church (The Mail, 1/21) to my letter about D.C. churches with suburban congregations (The Mail, 12/24) add up to double the length of my mine and challenge my accuracy, not to mention basic humanity, on a number of points. I would appreciate a chance to respond.
My statement that Luther Place’s housing project in the 1300 block of N Street as originally planned in the early ’90s was about the size of a standard Wal-Mart was, in fact, mistaken. At 187,214 square feet, it was actually 18 percent larger than a standard Kmart. True fact. (Sorry for the memory slip, and apologies to Wal-Mart.)
In claiming that Luther Place members “live in Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill, Shaw, Mount Pleasant, Logan Circle, and other parts of the District,” and only “some come from the suburbs,” the new senior pastor must have singled out the entire handful of members who do live in those city neighborhoods. By actual count, 94 percent of the 341 members listed in Luther Place’s 1991 directory had addresses outside the immediate area of the church. Twenty-two percent lived in upper Northwest. Seventy-one percent lived outside the city (26 percent in Virginia and 31 percent in Maryland, the rest in other states or abroad). A look at license plates of cars parked on our streets on Sundays indicates that Luther Place’s demographics have not changed radically since then.
The pastor challenged my statement that the facility was originally planned as a gigantic “homeless shelter.” He dismissed this as rhetoric intended to “scare up opposition” at the time. Fact: Luther Place’s own May 4, 1992, application for a $5 million HUD grant identified it as a “Homeless Demonstration” project.
Luther Place did prefer the term “transitional housing” for its planned $13 million, 10-story complex with facilities for 270 people, including a day-care center, job-training classes, recreation services and a health clinic. Call it what you will, if anything on this scale had ever been proposed in any of the neighborhoods where 94 percent of that congregation lived, I expect there would have been a war. And it was always the size we objected to. The community association always had supported Luther Place’s homeless mission itself, which began in 1974—shortly after the association was founded.
William R. Stewart asked, “Who is Donald Smith to claim that ‘the near-downtown area was already choked with such services’?”
Well, I am a person who is surprised to hear it disputed. According to D.C. government figures, Ward 2, with 13 percent of the city’s population, in 1992 had 29 percent of all types of community-based residential facilities, 66 percent of all emergency shelter beds, and 28 percent of adult rehabilitation-home beds. Within a six-block strip of 14th Street from Luther Place north were nine homeless shelters (including the Central Union Mission), nine service facilities (including Bread for the City), nine other social service agencies (including two halfway houses), and five other facilities in the proposal stage (including So Others Might Eat).
In another Washington Post article, the congregation’s then-president described its proposed addition to this mix as “a real improvement to the [Logan Circle] community.” At the same time, the church accused us skeptical residents of being NIMBYs when we didn’t snap to with the proper gratitude. As St. Timothy said, “Let them learn first to show piety at home.” There is no question that we as a society need to take care of people who can’t care for themselves. But (a) social service complexes of this size have long been discredited in favor of smaller, more scattered sites; and (b) our neighborhood had already done its part. We pretty much thought it was somebody else’s turn to help. Thank goodness, we were able to bring about a considerable scaling-back of the church’s original plan.
The odor of sanctimony here is strong, especially in Stewart’s letter, suggesting that people like me would like to see people starve and go naked. Like the race card, religion is always brought out with a flourish, in the expectation of trumping all others. Because one is doing “God’s work” (and just try defining that), every other consideration should be swept away. Such didacticism has a way of getting horribly out of control. As it happens, I have my own strong belief in God and the commandment to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and in fact am a longtime member of a downtown congregation that has a robust inner-city mission. However, my church never tried to turn my neighborhood into the region’s designated poverty-relief zone.