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The District’s mayoral hopefuls took their best shots at playing preacher at last night’s Missionary Baptist Ministers Conference Forum at Zion Baptist, offering the gathered reverends a voice in their hypothetical mayoral administrations—-oh, and lots and lots of parking.

“This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” said Ward 2 councilmember Jack Evans, kicking off the debate.

All the candidates promised to include ministers in mayoral decision-making. But with ministers openly worried at the forum about losing parishioners to Maryland, promising parking breaks on Sunday earned candidates the biggest applause lines. Former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis revealed that there’s a “war on churches” afoot in the District. “How it started was parking,” Lewis said.

Vincent Orange agreed with Lewis that there was a “war on parking,” citing his own church’s successful effort to get an exemption from the M Street bike lane. “If it was up to me, I would relax parking on Sunday,” Orange said.

Tommy Wells‘ smart growth ways would suggest that he’d be the least likely candidate to go to bat for free parking. But Wells went the farthest of all, promising to create a cabinet-level position in his administration to cover church issues like parking. Muriel Bowser got in on the parking too, saying that there’s no reason government shouldn’t be able to help churches find spots for their parishioners all seven days of the week.

“It definitely will be my position that the government should get out of the way and let people get to church,” Bowser said.

Wells’ usual proclamations about not taking corporate contributions for his campaign, which he’s gotten more confident about lately, wore on the other candidates. After Wells said every other candidate was taking corporate money, Bowser shot back that mentioning her was a move unbefitting Wells’ background as a former Sunday school teacher.  “Where I come from, that’s just plain rude,” she said.

But Bowser wasn’t above some digs of her own. Later, she said that she certainly could criticize some of her rivals, while pointing her finger at Wells.

The debate’s format, which gave candidates who were attacked in another candidate’s answer time to defend themselves, left Gray inadvertently responding to the first question he’s taken during a forum on his 2010 campaign’s malfeasance. Wells, taking a cue from the sacred settings, said it was time for Gray to confess and ask for forgiveness for the corruption that helped get him elected.

But the ministers, who have apparently forgiven Gray for calling Chick-fil-A “hate chicken,” weren’t having it. “Tommy Wells’s been running around town with that for the last several weeks, so I’m not going to waste my time with that,” Gray said to applause.

Photo of Reta Jo Lewis by Darrow Montgomery