Sign up for our free newsletter
It’s just past noon on a working weekday. A woman kneels at the foot of a life-size statue of a crucified Jesus tucked into the foyer of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church near Metro Center. She wears a dirty, misshapen white turtleneck, and her brown down jacket lies crumpled in the corner. For several minutes, she caresses the statue’s nailed feet, equal measures of rapture and grief on her slack-jawed, closed-eyed visage. Two latecomers walk inwell-dressed women in solid pumps who arrive talking. They notice the caresser and fall silent. She rises and rubs her cheek lightly on the statue’s ribcage; she seems to mumble a little louder than the noise of her breathing, but her lips never meet. The office women would likely scurry past her on the street, but both walk up to the caresser…and silently place their hands on His ribcage, too. Then the two go into the sanctuary, joining 70 or more of the faithful. The woman remains in the vestibule another 10 minutes before she gets up and walks outa heavy handbag in the crook of her elbow and her back and head preternaturally upright.
At St. Patrick’s, noonday Mass starts with the high-pitched ringing of a handheld bell. Across the street, in the nave of First Congregational Church, Pastor Robert L. Bryan Jr.’s weekday service begins when he raises the sheet-music stand he uses as a podium. A dozen blocks to the west, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue, the altar’s spotlights flick on just after noon, and eight score congregants rise. A half-mile to the south, at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, the daily service commences when the white-robed Rev. Randolph C. Charles steps into the side chapel and gives the page number, which is the same every day: “Our service of the Holy Eucharist begins on Page 355 of the hymnal.”
It’s 12:10 p.m.a time when almost everyone downtown breaks for the blessed sacrament of lunch. The cafeteria, a quick sandwich, and a dash back to the desk will have to do in most cases, although some of the luckier ones get a nod from a maitre d’ and a few gin-soaked olives to help them on their way. But for a fewvery few, reallynoon promises an opportunity to feed the soul. Catholics and Episcopalians in downtown D.C. find any number of cozy vestibules behind open church doors: the lit candles, the warm scent of wax, and a handful of the faithful in the pews to keep them company. It’s one of the charms of urban life.
“If you’re in a subdivision, you can stand on your head and spin on nickels and there’s not going to be a weekday noon Eucharist,” says the Rev. Luis León, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square. “Everyone’s downtown at the offices and churches there.”
Suburban Lutheran, Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches aren’t on the noon circuit, sticking to Sunday-morning and Wednesday-evening services. At noon, León gets a crack at their members. “Most of the noonday congregants are not members of St. John’s,” he says. “They’re from other churches, other denominations.”
“A lot of office workers attend those services,” says Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “They go for the peace, the calm, the tranquility, the sustenanceand because there’s a strong religious bent that’s a little greater here. This is really a strong churchgoing town.”
The irony hangs like incense. In a city preoccupied by godless pursuitsgovernance, lobbying, and spinsome among us steal away in the middle of it all, looking for repose and something more sustaining that a pastrami on rye. And for many, there’s nothing more holy than a 20-minute chunk of lunch-hour liturgy. “There’s a certain anonymity to worshiping on a weekday noon,” says Leon. “It’s not at all like Sundays, with programs, meetings, lunches, and people to meet. It works for people who want to worship or reflect anonymously.”
The Catholics have a corner on the high-noon market. At St. Patrick’s on Veterans Day, a national holiday when only half of downtown is working, Father Anthony Frontiero holds Mass for 60 people. Other weekdays the number tops 100. Most wear conservative overcoats, scarves, gloves, and smooth, shiny leather shoes. They arrive alone, for the most part.
“It’s good to take pause and realize that our work and our lives are destined for God,” Frontiero tells them. His five-minute sermon, which follows the usual two readings from the Bible, emphasizes “our hectic lives,” while reminding the faithful that “the just are in the hand of God.”
Soon, as the collection plate goes around, Frontiero thanks his noonday flock. “Thank you, not only for your offering, but above all for your attendance. It’s a sign of hope for those of us who are priests and called to serve.”
At 12:30 it’s over, and the caresser is already five or 10 minutes goneprobably back to the nearby library. Stepping out of the service, a short woman in a black wool coat drops two handfuls of coins loudly into the heavy metal box marked “For the Poor.” As the office coats step out the heavy wooden doors, a hollow-faced crackhead stamps his feet impatiently on the bottom step, and a few yards away a soggy-faced, slow-moving bottle-chaser waits on his cane. Both hold up cups. God’s handiwork, they show up like all the other regulars.
At the Church of the Epiphany, a few blocks from Metro Center, the 12:10 is a small tribute to the durability of faith. Charles packs a dozensometimes 14 or 16into a small chapel to the side of the church’s main hall. People sit two to a short pew, and the sounds are respectful ones: leather soles on stone floors, hymnal pages rustling, and fabrics shuffling as coats come off and legs are crossed or bent onto kneelers. Before Charles walks in, no one talks. Most stare ahead at the stone altar or bow their closed eyes toward the clasped hands in their laps. There are no distractions, no Joneses to keep up withonly a God of their understanding and these 20 minutes.
If Sunday services roll along on pomp and circumstancechoirs, ladies who smell pretty, hymns, and all manner of banners and gownsmost noonday services give only circumstance. Especially at Epiphany. On a weekday noon, there are no programs to fuss with, no one flipping pages trying to follow the lessons of the day as they are read aloud from the altar. Instead, a parishioner beautifully recites from memory a lesson from a letter of St. Paul. She uses facial expressions, hand gestures, and eye contact for emphasis, making biblical advice into an essayshe knows it by and from her heart. When she is finished, a man in a nylon coat rises and holds a hymnbook a few inches from his eyes. He reads from Psalm 145, misreading some words and dropping others as he trades alternating lines with the rest of the congregantshe’s reading it for the first time. As he stumbles through the psalm, none of the standing dozen betray the slightest piqueno one shifts the weight on his feet or takes his eyes from the italicized psalm in the hymnal open in his hands. Everyone simply prays through the awkwardness, and it dissipates quickly. When the liturgy calls for congregants to greet their neighbors and wish them peace, everyone at Epiphany shakes everyone else’s hand.
Two days each week, Charles’ church feeds lunches to the hungry. Sometimes the hungry join the noon Eucharist, but most inside Epiphany’s side chapel look well-heeled and well-to-do. “That’s the kind of thing we’re called to do,” Charles explains. “Have a visible, developing relationship with people on the street and people in the offices.” Only two of the dozen noon regulars are members of the church, and Charles doesn’t know where the rest worship on Sundaysor if they’re even Episcopalians.
His church’s membership is a small fraction of what it once was. Changes in the city over the past few decades have dropped Epiphany’s flock to 225”the people who stayed in the city through the riots of the ’60s and the following years of white flight.” Charles’ own congregation doesn’t generally come at noon, the pews occupied instead by an interracial mix of downtown office commuters. “It’s real quick, since it’s lunch hour,” he says. “I don’t know if these people clock in and out, but we make it quick.” And it has paid off; in three months, out of the church’s eight new members, four come from weekday noon services.
Counting souls is part of a minister’s business. Charles’ church is six blocks from its rival: St. John’s. León was Charles’ college classmate. Every president since James Madison has worshipped at St. John’s. President Clinton attends about four times a year. St. John’s has more than four times the membership of Epiphany and about one third the space.
“I wish I had their children,” says Charles,
his laughter belying any genuine envy. “And
Charles and León look like Episcopalians. Both are tall, thin, and in their late 40s. At noon at St. John’s, León ministers to 10, sometimes 30. With noon sunlight coming through stained-glass windows into the yellow-painted church, built in 1815, a back-pew visitor sees the tailor’s proper slice of white collar peeking over the backs of a half-dozen dark blue business suits. Executive office buildings, the Treasury, Veteran’s Affairs, and Riggs Bank HQ are nearby. This is the church of the assistant deputy secretary to the minister of very serious solemn things.
León and Charles shape their five-minute noon sermons to their respective crowds. Charles, preaching to G and F Streets’ high- and lowbrows alike, says, “All of us, although not called to be bishops, are called to lead in faith in our communities.” Across the square from the White House, León preaches nonpartisan pulpitry: “We tend to demonize others we don’t agree with, and [unfairly] accuse them of leading the country down the road of perdition.”
“…Then you’re on America’s Most Wanted, and then you’re on Tales From the Crypt, and then some green men come down and pluck you up…” Bryan, pastor of Sword of the Spirit Ministries, is telling his 13 Thursday congregants about how it feels to be alone in holding to a truth against society. “And then the green men drop you down in Utah somewhereand then you walk back to D.C. because you’ve got to go to work the next day!”
Wednesdays through Fridays, Bryan rents First Congregational Church for Sword of the Spirit’s noonday services. A few people spread themselves wide across lots of pew space and a whole lot of church. Bryan wears a brown suit over a black turtleneck and for an hour and a half reads a passage of the Bible line by line, extemporaneously explaining it by loosely weaving together stories, thoughts, television references, and miscellaneous metaphors. Most of the flock follows along in Bibles in zippered book covers, some with passages rippled by yellow highlighters. Judging by how long his congregants stay and listen, one would guess that they have few earthly concerns.
Bryan asks questions, sometimes small factual ones, about Masonic Temple terminology, or about his attendees’ personal paths through life: “Anybody here murder anybody?” At that, a small man in the front row raises both hands high and hangs his head low.
Bryan likes judicial metaphors. Drawing on the difference between civil and criminal courts, he says that in the afterlife, “Christians don’t have to go to criminal court because all their sins have been paid for. Christians instead have to go to civil court to account for what you did for the Lord, how you lived, and how you worked down on this earth.”
After the service he meets one-on-one with anyone who wants his advice. A half-dozen line up outside his office, standing among drums, amps, and soundboards that are used for more annuciatory forms of worship. His door is open, and the confessed murderer is inside. The small man says he can’t make sense of a passage and doesn’t understand the meaningor the pronunciationof the word “prerequisite” in the passage. Bryan replies by expounding on a story about theologian John Calvin. He uses the storyteller’s art to draw suspense and dramatic climax from the tale of the 16th-century reformer’s life and works. At the end of the four-minute lesson, he directs the man to fear the Lord but approach the passage and decisions in daily life with “a Calvinist faith.” The man leaves the office happy.
Bryan’s office decor suggests that his God is an occasionally vengeful one. A shiny 4-foot sword occupies the wall behind his chair; there are a dagger-style letter opener on the desk blotter before him and a 6-inch brass Excalibur upright in a brass miniboulder on the desk right in front of his visitor’s chair.
Bryan says he usually preaches to 30 to 40 people on weekdaysone time as many as 100. “It’s informal. They come in, spend 20 minutes. But others are out of work for two years or so. Some people come in to sleep or rest for an hour. That’s fine, too.”
Sword of the Spirit is a nondenominational ministry. Bryan preaches “spirituality instead of religion,” an exegesis that includes little green men, judges in the clouds, and TV reruns. “Why waste time on some external rituals? Let’s get to the meat. My job is to make it practical, make it relevant. I try to get a feel for where people are hurting and preach
to that, because the Bible, which
is the true word of God, does not say how to get a job or where to get a house.”
“My competition is psychics,” says Bryan. “Not that people don’t have psychic ability, but it’s a question of where their power really comes from. People will come to see me for advice and then go to a psychic, too.”
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m being at all effective. What we got today was, like, this…” he says, reaching into the offering basket and pulling out the single piece of paper inside it: a $1 bill.
St. Matthew’s Cathedral is the granddaddy of the high-noon circuit. Its weekday service grabs 120 to 150 souls, easy, for what one occasional visitor calls “the businessman’s special.”
Its Masses are the most like Sunday serviceslots of people, a red-robed singer, prayers for everyone to sing, and more than one priest standing at the altar during the sermon. A woody rumble resounds under the cathedral’s high rotunda every time the congregants stand, sit, or kneel.
In contrast to Sunday family awkwardness, the noon regulars have been here so often the procedure is a part of them. They move inside the church with no self-consciousness, never hesitant about where to go, when, or what to do. They don’t sweat the small stuff: walking in late during the sermon, the noise of a long coat’s metal zipper, or the thud of moving the pew’s kneeling bench. It’s all small stuff.
With the wafer still stuck on the roofs of their mouths and the taste of the wine on their tongues, some are concentrating on buttoning their coats and making their way out, passing others still on their way to the wafer and wine. Others are bowed in the pews long after the priest has declared, “Go forth.”
A tall, muscular man in his late 50s with a good dark suit covered by a loose and even fashionable overcoat stays almost until the end. His face is red and he wears hearing aids in both ears. The belt buckle of his coat clangs loudly against the pew as he gets off his knees to stand with his hands out, palms open. He’s wrapping a thick scarf around his neck; the wafer can’t even be soggy in his mouth yet. A quick, long stride down the aisle, his gloves are on, and he’s past the white-eyed bumcup outholding the doors open. Out the door, he slips his tweed snap-brim hat smoothly on with the two butter-soft gloves. A regular. A habitué. One who knows what he’s doing. A guy who forsakes the bread of this lunchtime for the bread of the kingdom to come. He’s one who has made the liturgy a part of himhe’s the interview. The one to ask why.
He walks fast down the steps and down the avenue. He listens to the questions without turning his head or slowing his pace. He almost shouts his answers.
“I want to focus on serving God well in this life so I hopefully gain eternal reward in heaven with him!” he yells.
He does not live in the city. St. Matthew’s is not his home church. He attends Mass almost every day. It’s all right to quote him. What’s his name? “What? I’m not going to tell you my name!”
He takes off his glove and shakes hands but doesn’t slow his pace. Lunch hour is precious.CP