Pastor James Ahlemann and his congregation at Fellowship Christian Church in Ashburn, Va., believe they have been given a divine charge: “To meet the needs of the poor, the destitute and disenfranchised, to help heal their hurts, to win souls for Christ and to instill a new hope, birthing new visions.”
The 2,500 members of the suburban congregation eagerly contribute huge amounts to the church’s coffers, making for an annual operating budget of over $4.5 million to meet the demands of its mission. Of course, in Ashburn, poor, destitute, and disenfranchised souls are hard to come by. But Pastor Ahlemann knows just where to find them.
When D.C. Public Schools started hawking abandoned Southeast properties two years ago, Ahlemann saw the perfect opportunity to develop an inner-city-outreach post for the church. He immediately signed a use agreement for the former Tyler School at 10th & G Streets SE, which would become the temporary site for Fellowship Christian Church’s Hope Center. He also began looking for a permanent location in the community.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches that we are to reach out to the poor and the needy, and that’s what we are seeking to do as a suburban church that cares about making a difference in the inner-city community,” says Ahlemann. Since 1992, he had been operating a small-scale outreach program in the Potomac Gardens public housing project, delivering donated goods and busing families out to his suburban ministry. “Out here in the suburbs, we don’t just talk the talk,” he says. “We have the resources of people, finances, and training to really make a difference.”
The Hope Center, which now has its own congregation of about 300 members, has become everything Ahlemann had hoped for: an inner-city outpost in a relatively innocuous neighborhood where his corps of suburban do-gooders can do their version of the Lord’s work. “This is someone living God’s word,” says Patricia Hill, a Potomac Gardens resident and mother of two who says the Hope Center has been instrumental in her recovery from addiction. “They seen me in that shape and they just opened their arms.”
Aiming to turn such desire into a permanent home for the Hope Center, Ahlemann’s church put in a bid to purchase the former Giddings School at 3rd and G Streets SE.
The less-than-eager response from prospective Capitol Hill neighbors, however, suggests that Ahlemann’s evangelists have their work cut out for them. Rather than a D.C. branch of a Virginia congregation, neighbors had in mind a private sports cluban institution that supporters say would both pay D.C. taxes and alleviate some homeowners’ fears of yet another social-service establishment opening up on Capitol Hill.
But the ensuing debate has as much to do with Ahlemann’s history of rightist politics and religious intolerance as with the relative merits of two development proposals.
“We aim to teach Bible-based guidelines for Christian living while providing physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery,” says Ahlemann. “And that seems to be more than certain people who make decisions downtown want from us.”
Any way you slice it, Rev. James Ahlemann and the Capitol Hill neighborhood are an odd match. The neighborhood is urban, socially liberal, and politically Democratic. In recent years, many residents have felt deluged by the large number of treatment facilities hosted by their neighborhood.
The minister, meanwhile, hails from the distant suburbs, spews conservative family-values rhetoric, and is credited with having helped elect right-wing Republican Richard H. Black in a special election last February for a Virginia House seat. And Ahlemann is in the neighborhood to set up a program for the poor and destitute.
Ahlemann has baggage that makes many locals queasy, no matter what their position on the Giddings school proposal. “If you were to do a simple Internet search on James Ahlemann, it would help you understand why our community is opposing his bid,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose.
Last year, he tried to block construction of the $50 million Islamic Saudi Academy in Loudoun County, allegedly because of Saudi Arabia’s oppressive treatment of Christians. In the newspapers, he also shared his personal fears that a school for Muslims would invite terrorist activity into Ashburn. He was a key figure in the push last year to restrict Internet access in Loudoun County public libraries because of pornography fears.
“I certainly don’t try to isolate myself from issues that are of concern to me and to the people of my congregation,” says Ahlemann, pooh-poohing the extent of his political activity. But his Bible-thumping influence hasn’t gone unrewarded: While Republicans in Congress have pared social-service budgets to the bone, Ahlemann didn’t have any trouble rallying support for the Hope Center’s bid for the Giddings School from Congressmen Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.). “They sought to encourage the D.C. financial control board to look favorably upon our purchase of the Giddings School,” says Ahlemann.
“Ahlemann is a less-than-charming character from a very large, very conservative, very politically active suburban congregation,” says Ambrose. Like many of her constituents, Ambrose would like to see old school properties turned to positive community use. But she says she is concerned about what she calls the church’s brand of righteous-outsider condescension.
“Pastor Ahlemann came in and met with me and told me it was very important to him to have a D.C. presence,” Ambrose says. “He felt that the local leadership had failed, and said he wanted to set an example for other suburban ministries to begin taking over in the shadow of the Capitol. He also saidand this is a direct quote, very much burned into my mindthat he was very interested in the Giddings School’s 3rd and G location, just off the Southeast Freeway, ‘so the ladies from Virginia who are coming to teach the poor, sweet women in the projects how to read won’t feel uncomfortable.’”
Ahlemann, in response, claims nothing but compassion for the people he aims to serve. He says Ambrose has been out to get him from the start.
Very few people, including Ambrose, would argue that the existing social services for the poor and homeless in Ward 6 are sufficient. But while Ahlemann seems determined to provide social service programs in the District, he has not contacted the Capitol Hill Group Ministryan ecumenical neighborhood consortiumor other religious groups with decades of experience collaborating on similar goals. Ambrose argues that people unabashedly afraid of the city shouldn’t be trusted to aid it.
Few of the folks opposing Ahlemann would be using a social-service center like the one Ahlemann is proposing, whether it was run by a right-wing congregation or the Socialist Workers’ Party. The main local counterproposalone that now looks likely to prevailis a joint bid for the site from the Congressional Squash and Athletic Club and the Capitol Hill Sports and Arts Center.
The original $750,000 sports club bid, sponsored by Capitol Hill neighbors Wendy Lawrence, David McDonough, and Winfield Sealanader, fell drastically short of the school system’s original valuation of the building and was significantly less than the Fellowship Christian Church bid. But Ambrose’s political push helped partners successfully negotiate terms. With the help of equity investors and bank financing, the group ponied up a final bid of $1.8 million, plus taxwhich Fellowship Christian Church would be exempt fromand at least $2.5 million in proposed renovations. Ahlemann’s much higher Hope Center bid was pushed into second place.
Lawrence says plans for the site include a private sports and health club with after-school access for the nearby schools’ athletics programs, a basketball court, a three-lane lap pool, at least five international-size squash courts, a performing arts theater, and 40 parking spaces. Her plan is to use the private Congressional Squash and Athletic Club to underwrite a community sports and arts center.
“We didn’t want to bash the Hope Center so much as promote what we wanted to do with the site,” says Lawrence, a retired professional squash player and general manager of the Washington Sports Club. “We knew they had deep pockets, but we knew we had a tremendous amount of community support. There was some feeling that ours was a community-based Capitol Hill group and that the church from suburban Virginia had questionable motives.”
Lawrence admits, though, that for some sports club supporters, it was the identity of the clientelepoor folks looking for servicesrather than the identity of Ahlemann’s Virginian missionaries that made the difference. “To be honest,” says Lawrence, “it’s become kind of a not-in-my-back-yard thing, where people don’t necessarily want a drug rehab center or a soup kitchen or even a fundamentalist church right near the three schools.”
In November, the control board gave the sports club group the right to purchase the building, with a 90-day financing contingency. Ambrose remains certain that it was local support and proposed renovationsnot simply a higher class of customersthat won Lawrence’s group favor with the control board.
If the sports club can’t set up financing by Jan. 28, Ahlemann will have the option to purchase the site for the Hope Center. But Lawrence says the money is in place, and she is confident that they will be able to purchase the building.
“Right now we’re the backup purchaser,” says Ahlemann, feeling duly snubbed. “Sharon Ambrose is totally in support of the Congressional Squash Club group and totally opposed to our being able to purchase the property. She feels that the needs of the people in Ward 6 are already being met, and that’s absurd. Whatever happens, our long-term goal is just to expand the ministry and find a permanent location.” CP