Dupont Circle’s eastern edge rivals any urban neighborhood for holiness. Churches of every imaginable denomination monopolize neighborhood street corners, like bars or panhandlers in other aging cities: Fifteenth Street Presbyterian, Free Evangelistic, Universalist National Memorial, St. Luke’s Episcopal, and St. James Apostleto name just a handfulall worship within three-tenths of a mile of each other. Dupont residents, as well as their neighbors in Shaw and Logan Circle, regularly complain that area streets become parking lots for parishioners every Sunday.
In the last few months, however, some homeowners near 15th and Swann Streets NW have raised Cain about a church that generates no gridlock whatsoever: Missions to the 21st Century, “an interfaith, multicultural church” founded in 1969, according to a white wooden sign planted on the grounds of 1821 15th St. NW. Another large billboard on the property identifies the location as the home of the First Aframerican Church Episcopal: “By making the world safe for Black people, making the world safe for All people,” the sign declares.
Aside from the two signs, though, Missions to the 21st Century hardly resembles a traditional house of prayer. Its sanctuary is a seemingly derelict historic row house at the intersection of 15th and Swann. The corner lot is landscaped with overgrown weeds and an eclectic assortment of large glass plates, supermarket shopping carts, wooden benches, and other, smaller items. And a padlocked chain-link fence surrounding the property keeps out whatever wayward souls come searching for spiritual solace.
It’s one hell of an eyesore in this rapidly gentrifying part of the city. So this spring, some of Mission to the 21st Century’s neighbors failed to turn the other cheek. The neighbors brought the church to the attention of the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, arguing that it is a ruse for an elaborate tax scam.
“Since July 1970, the property located at 1821 Fifteenth Street, N.W. has been fraudulently and erroneously recorded on the District of Columbia’s tax rolls as a tax-exempt church property,” says an unsigned letter sent to the agency as well as to members of the D.C. Council and the mayor’s office. “Neighbors of this property would definitely know if religious services of any type were being held on the premises….Over the past several years, none of the neighbors residing near 1821 Fifteenth Street, N.W. have ever witnessed any other humans entering or exiting the property at 1821 Fifteenth Street, N.W. other than the owner of the property, Mr. Joseph Howard.”
Testimony from neighbors and a site visit by a tax assessor put the property back on the tax rolls after three decades. Howard sees his neighbors’ punctiliousness as a crusade of another sort. “Real estate in D.C. has experienced a type of ethnic cleansing. Serbs do it with guns. Here we do it with money and code enforcement,” says Howard, who graduated from the Howard University School of Divinitythen known as the School of Religionin 1970. “I find their actions and attitudes despicable.”
Last Friday night, the front porch light at 1821 15th St. NW flickered, and a basement light illuminated the debris scattered around Howard’s front yard. The iron gate at the front door was flung open. But the chain-link fence surrounding the yard remained padlocked and the front door closed, notwithstanding the sign notifying passers-by of scheduled church services that evening for 8:30 p.m.
From 8 to 9 o’clock, not even one parishioner showed up to attend services. Traffic had been equally light the prior week, as well.
“That’s when I was late,” explains Howard in his distinguished, scholarly tone. We’re meeting in a coffee house in Adams Morgan, since Howard has politely declined a request for an interview at his church. Dressed in a gray wool sports coat, white shirt frayed at the collar, plain blue tie, and orthopedic shoes, Howard looks more like a neatly barbered modern-day Frederick Douglass than tax-cheat real estate mogul Leona Helmsley. At times, the interview seems like office hours with that emeritus professor who doesn’t receive too many visits from studentsbut makes the most of those who do drop by. “I came and unlocked the gate a little late….You cannot make people come to church, though,” Howard says.
Like many black ministers, Howard considers the church not only a calling but a family tradition. He grew up in Baltimore, where his grandfather served as minister of the Payne African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. After working as a Spanish teacher in the D.C. and New York City public school systems, Howard decided to go down the spiritual path and enrolled in Howard University’s School of Religion in his 40s.
Howard remained a teacher and ministered only part-time even after becoming ordained by the AME church. He still commutes between New York and Washington, he says, though he spends more time in D.C. these days.
Howard says he conceived Missions to the 21st Centurythen only the 20th Centuryafter taking a course about the urban church in divinity school. Howard recalls that the formative text of the class was Martin E. Marty’s Suburban Captivity of the Church. “Big churches were not meeting the needs of poor people in general,” says Howard. “The urban church has to be on the cutting edge of what’s happening in society.”
Howard says he ministers mainly to the poor, the elderly, and members of his community who seek a more active spiritual journey. From his description, the services sound more like Quaker meetingswith their emphasis on dialogue and social actionthan like Southern Baptists’ call and response. “Karl Barth said you have to interpret the world with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” Howard says. Each Friday night of the month caters to a different ministry: The first Friday is for the First Aframerican Church Episcopal, the second focuses on “Missions to Americans,” the third is the “Romero/King Institute,” and the fourth emphasizes “Community Missions.”
All of his services, Howard says, take an interfaith, multicultural approach and a firm stand against violence. “I don’t want to get radical, but I know ministers who have advised young people to go into the military to straighten their lives out,” notes Howard. “Come on. The Bible clearly says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
Some neighbors, though, believe Howard ministers to a congregation of one. “It’s clearly not a church,” declares Damon Moglen, who lives down the block, at 1441 Swann, but denies any knowledge of the neighborhood witch hunt. “He’s running a good scam.”
“I’ve never seen anyone going into that building ever,” says Michael Goltzman, who also lives on the 1400 block of Swann and also says he was not part of the anonymous letter-writing campaign against the church. “There is also a church across the street [from Missions to the 21st Century] where you see people in the building on Sundays, on Tuesday nights. You can hear when the choir practicesyou know that it’s a church.”
“St. James is very primal. They like to sing hymns, and they pray a lot,” says Howard about the neighbor, St. James Apostle Church, located across Swann at 1819 15th St. NW. He also points out that on Sunday mornings, nearby streets become filled with the big, expensive cars of St. James’ parishioners. “We are more ethical,” Howard explains.
Howard hastens to add that St. James has also suffered condemnation from busybody neighborsfor the very same evening choir practices Goltzman cites as evidence against Missions to the 21st Century. “One of the complaints against us is that they don’t see anyone coming in and out,” says Howard. “They make too much noise; we don’t seem to make enough.”
Howard admits that his house might be a little unseemlyand not just to people who equate property values with godliness.
Longtime residents, though, look beyond the Sanford and Son-like exterior. “I live next door, so if it doesn’t bother me, I don’t understand how it’s an issue,” says Meg Kirkwood, who has lived across the alley from Howard for seven years.
Howard’s nosy neighbors, however, have several regulatory provisions on their side. For starters, Missions to the 21st Century has not applied for a certificate of occupancy from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairspaperwork required for any public meeting space. The department last issued a certificate for the property on Nov. 20, 1957, when the building functioned as a rooming house.
When the tax assessor from the Office of Tax and Revenue visited the church this spring, he found “no evidence” that religious activities occurred on the property. Officials with the agency initially decided to put Howard back on the tax rolls and charge him for the maximum in back taxes under the law, which totals nearly $10,000.
So far, Howard has successfully battled the tax man. According to neighbors, officials with the city’s tax agency wavered when faced with the moral quandary of labeling an elderly black minister a fraud. Chief Assessor of the District of Columbia James Vinson agreed to keep Missions to the 21st Century tax-exempt if Howard submitted a letter listing his congregants. Vinson has yet to receive the letter. Until it finds its way to his office, Vinson notes, Howard remains in arrears.
Howard says the list is in the works. And a few of Howard’s neighbors have offered their names for the roster. “I know that he’s getting new members to his church,” says Consuelo Newman, who lives across 15th Street from Howard and identifies herself as a member of his congregation. “He’s reorganizing within the last year or so, so there hasn’t been a lot of activity.”
“He’s a very honest, very ethical person who feels very strongly about his church,” Newman adds. “If he’s done something erroneous, he just hasn’t followed up on the proper guidelines.”
A fire last year caused significant damage to the church building, Howard explains, so he often brings his ministry outside the chain-link fence. “We’ve had informal meetings at our house,” says Roger Boyd, who also lives across the street from Howard and first met the minister when he lent him a pair of pants after the fire. “I wouldn’t call it a denomination. It’s an exchange of ideas….My description is more of a kaffeeklatsch.”
Boyd explains that Howard generally chooses a topic of conversation for the service and the assembled members discuss it openly. At a meeting last year, Boyd recalls, Howard showed a film on U.S. policy and the Hawaiian islands.
“Is it like the church across the street?” Boyd asks. “No. Is it ritualized? No.”
More than taxes and theology, though, it’s the fact that Howard’s church is slightly more unkempt than other houses of worship that makes some neighbors seethe. Goltzman claims that at one point, Howard used to hang plastic Safeway shopping bags filled with trash on the chain-link fence. And another time, Howard hung up a sign on his property declaring it “Ratovia.” “Like the country of rats,” Goltzman explains.
Howard disputes Goltzman’s first accusation and calls the “Ratovia” sign an innocent joke. “I’m a collector. I come out of the waste-not, want-not school,” Howard explains with a smile. In March, housing inspectors visited the property. Despite the mess, they didn’t declare it a nuisance. Howard says that he is slowly cleaning up the yard.
As for the overgrown shrubs, Howard believes they evoke the black church of old, in the hush-arbor tradition. “He likes it that way because he thinks it’s pretty,” says Newman. “He likes that it looks in the middle of the woods.”
“You judge a neighbor for his actions. Joe’s been a good neighbor,” argues Kirkwood. “He won’t make Martha Stewart’s monthly magazine, but neither will I.”
“If you like the person, he’s an eccentric,” Boyd adds. “If you don’t like him, he’s a kook.” CP