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Shaw residents get no sympathy from the District’s vaunted meter maids. If they park their vintage Impalas and flashy Acuras an inch too close to the nearest alley or intersection, they’re sure to find pricey pink slips on their windshields. Like residents of all other D.C. neighborhoods, they’ve learned that there’s no getting around the city’s parking regulationsunless you’re a good Christian.
On a Saturday night in early November, the blocks around 6th and M Streets NW looked like the Washington Sheraton parking lot during a World Bank conference. The hoopdees and Acuras had been eclipsed by big, sleek luxury sedans with North Carolina tags, souped-up vans, Jaguars, and even a few tour busesall double-parked. A stream of ladies in hats and heels and dapper men in well-cut suits had left Lincoln Continentals willy-nilly, in the middle of the street, as if they were waiting for the valet to park them elsewhere. Some cars had been there for so long that they were double-parked next to empty legal spaces along the curb. None of them were ticketed.
The cars and buses had ferried nearly 2,000 people from all over the country to “God’s White House,” the national headquarters of the United House of Prayer for All People. The occasion? Church members were celebrating the “climax” of the church’s fiscal year with a whole weekend of festivities. Three times a year the church plays host to such revival celebrations, but the burgeoning congregation double-parks in Shaw with impunity on off weeks as well, much to the chagrin of its law-abiding neighbors.
Saturday night, I finished a volunteer shift at a neighborhood nonprofit near the church, only to find my car hemmed in by a silver Lincoln Town Car. A man in a Volkswagen station wagon was also trapped, but three of his buddies helped him back the wagon up over the curb so that he could squeeze out through a little opening in front of my car. I had less appealing options: abandon my car for the rest of the weekend or venture into the Saints’ Paradise (the church cafeteria) to find someone to move the Lincoln. Minutes later I found myself, clad in paint-splattered sweats, sheepishly wading into the teeming mass of silk, fur, fancy hats, and spit-shined shoes of the well-dressed believers packed inside the House of Prayer.
Inside, I approached a phalanx of ushers who looked as if they did double duty as bouncers when the Holy Spirit got a little out of hand. After another trip to the car and back, I handed one of the ushers the license-plate number of the offending vehicle and returned to my car to wait for salvation.
While I sat in the dark, praying to be freed before I got mugged by one of the less devout Shaw dwellers loitering on the dark corners east of 6th Street, the police arrived. One of the officers offered to back my car over the curb to squeeze out of the little space the Volkswagen had inched through, but the space looked too narrow. In the end, the officer did essentially what I had done: He went inside the church to tell people to move. The one thing the cops didn’t do that night was write a parking ticket or call a tow truck. Not only does church membership ward off the devil, it seems to work miracles on D.C.’s cursed parking enforcement as well.
Founded in 1926 by Precious Sweet Daddy Grace, a Portuguese immigrant famous for his purple and chartreuse cutaway coats and 4-inch red-white-and-blue fingernails, the United House of Prayer is one of Washington’s richest churches. It owns an estimated $34 million worth of D.C. real estatemore than a half-million square feet of tax-exempt city property (see “A House Divided,” 6/9/95). The denomination has constructed a 7,000-square-foot miniature castle (complete with tennis courts) in Rock Creek Park to house its bishop. Around the M Street White House, the church has built a minimall and a plethora of low-income housing that includes the 90-unit Canaanland Apartments, the 108-unit McCollough Terrace, and the 190-unit Paradise Manor apartments. All the construction was paid for with cash. Despite a downtown development record that rivals Oliver Carr’s, the church has one up on the famed developer: The United House of Prayer has never had to build a parking garage for its church. But then, why build a parking lot when you can use city streets for free?
Washington is a churchgoing city, and historically the city has treated churchgoers with kid gloves. The Department of Public Works (DPW), which is in charge of parking enforcement, is closed on Sundays and at night, so ticket-writing is left up to the police. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officials say it’s not the lawit’s not even official police policybut they try to accommodate the city’s churches by allowing their members to double-park ticket-free on Sundays. “There’s no set policy that they don’t get tickets,” says 1st District Sgt. Brian Murphy, articulating the religious corollary to MPD’s zero-tolerance policy. “We just try to take into consideration that they’re going to church. When it’s a church function, we try to locate the people and get them to move their cars first before we give any tickets.”
But neighbors of the United House of Prayer wonder if the churchgoers are starting to abuse their immunity to parking tickets. The church holds giant festivals like the one last weekend at least three times a year. But the parishioners don’t need special events to justify double-parking, which neighbors say goes on all year long, and not just on Sunday.
Apostle H.L. Whitner, chairman of the House of Prayer’s Washington district and pastor of the M Street outpost, insists that parking isn’t a problem for most of the neighbors. He says most of the longtime residents know they just have to come over and ask and the church will make sure the cars get moved. “The people around here understand. We’ve been here 60 years, and we have good relations with the neighbors. They cooperate with us,” says Whitner.
If Saturday night was any indication, though, the church’s longtime neighbors aren’t as forgiving as Whitner thinks. Wise from experience, one woman who lives on 6th Street had put orange cones all around her legally parked car on Saturday to keep churchgoers from blocking it in, so she could get to work that night. Yet when she went out to take her kids to the baby-sitter at 6 o’clock, she couldn’t budge. The woman was livid and was apparently in no mood to cooperate with the church. She called the cops.
However, nearly everyone I spoke with who knows about the parking situation around the churcheven veteran neighborhood rabblerousersdeclined to be quoted for this story for fear of picking a fight with the United House of Prayer.
The driver of the Volkswagen, who has lived on 6th Street for 11 years, later said that while the House of Prayer attendees repeatedly inconvenience him, he has never complained to the authorities for fear of incurring the wrath of the “Saints,” as some of the neighbors like to call them. “The church is very powerful,” he said, which also explains why he didn’t want his name in the paper.
Indeed, in another neighborhood, the Volkswagen owner could take his parking problems to the local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC). But in this case, he’d have to plead his case to Doris Brooks, an ANC commissioner who lives in the House of Prayer’s low-income apartment complex at McCollough Court. Brooks left an irate message at Washington City Paper complaining that the House of Prayer should not be singled out for its parking violations, especially when parishoners at all the other neighborhood churches are just as guilty:
“You got blocked in? We get blocked in. We have our own parking lots and we get blocked in, but we don’t put that in the paper.”
Despite the obvious need for a church parking lot, Whitner says there just isn’t any real estate in the neighborhood to build one. He says that the one lot the church now uses is going to be taken by the new convention center. Still, there didn’t seem to be a shortage of land when the denomination wanted to build a new building for the church’s Charlotte mission up the block on 7th Street. The House of Prayer merely tore down a string of old storefronts that had served as the old meeting place and constructed a new monstrosity that claims every inch of the old space. A red-brick postmodern melange of Gothic, Victorian, and Byzantine elementsa spire and a domethe new church opened last fall to a crowd of 2,000; the new sanctuary holds 450. The evening service chapel holds 125.
City zoning regulations require all new building projects to add parking spaces to accommodate the use of the space. New churches are supposed to have one parking space for every 10 seats in the main sanctuary or for every seven square feet of pew space. That means the new House of Prayer on 7th Street would need to provide at least 45 parking spaces. It has 11.
The parking situation in Shaw will only get worse. Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, says that when the convention center is built, it will eliminate 1,100 parking spaces from the neighborhood and attract an additional 5,000 cars and tour buses. Once it’s all done, the blocks around the House of Prayer will look like midtown Manhattan.
Nate Gross, the former D.C. chief of comprehensive plan implementation who now works as a city planning consultant at the law firm of Arnold & Porter, says Shaw residents may have to get used to taking Metro. He says the churches are a lot more organized than they used to be and can easily disarm neighborhood opponents. In addition, few politicians are willing to alienate the churches’ formidable voting blocks by cracking down on their parking violations. In fact, in 1982, when Bishop McCollough was looking for a spot to build Paradise Manor, Mayor Marion Barry gave him a piece of city land for a dollar to get the bishop’s endorsement.
“Politically, you can’t get very far,” Gross says. “It’s tough, because the inner-city churches expand, and all their parishioners live in the suburbs and everybody drives. In the old days, at least some people walked.” CP