Saving churches on Capitol Hill

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Thursday, July 11th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. In the Washington, D.C., real estate market, you might see “for sale” signs in unexpected places. Several church buildings are up for sale. Developers are buying them and turning them to luxury condos.

One woman is on a mission to help congregations keep their historic buildings and use them for the good of the city. WORLD Radio’s Jenny Rough has the story.

JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: In the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., church buildings are being sold off, one-by-one.  

Nonprofit executive director Liz Laird has been watching this phenomenon for a few years now. 

LAIRD: We’re sitting outside of one right now. The former Imani temple. It was listed back in 2012 for $5.8 million. I’m not exactly sure what the developer got it for, but it’s now luxury condos. It’s been split up into six units. 

The building is beautiful. It’s made of Potomac blue stone, a rock formerly quarried from nearby Montgomery County, Maryland. Large stained glass windows enhance the city’s sunlight. A bell tower reaches 130 feet in the air. 

The developers retained the architecture and aesthetics when they converted the church to condos. A positive. And ownership of private property can be a good thing. But Laird has concerns. 

LAIRD: We started to map properties. We found that on Capitol Hill, from 2008 to 2018 there was a 40 percent loss of sacred spaces, which actually, to be quite honest, shocked us. 

Forty-four churches in a ten year period, gone.

Laird walks four blocks down the street to the Little Red Chapel, which looks exactly like its name. The cornerstone inscription reads: P-H Church 1925-27. The interior is gutted and construction underway for two family-sized homes. 

LAIRD: The point is, once these buildings are converted, they don’t come back. 

Two hundred yards to the west, a man walks out of the former Way of the Cross Church, a Gothic revival style building. He lives there now, in one of the 30 condos. 

LAIRD: The historic congregations, they’re in prime locations, are big gathering spaces that could be used in other ways. 

The loss of these gathering spaces tugged at her heart, so Laird began working for a nonprofit that helps churches save their buildings, generate income, and serve the community.  

LAIRD: Sacred Spaces comes alongside these congregations and says, how can you steward your building well? Let’s talk about how you might actually be able to rent these out for ministry purposes. Could you bring in a daycare? Could you rent out classroom space? Could you, you know, open up your Fellowship Hall…

All great ideas. But why are so many church buildings empty in the first place? One reason is because of the decline in attendance of mainline denominations. Even so, Laird says there are evangelical Christians planting new churches in Capitol Hill. The new church plants don’t tend to own buildings. They meet in high schools. Or movies theaters. Coffee shops and living rooms.

LAIRD: In the church plant world ownership of physical space has not been a priority. 


LAIRD: Because people say they want to focus on ministry, not thinking through the long-term implications of place and rootedness. Yet there is still a need for space for these congregations that are growing and thriving. 

In the Bible, “church” refers to a body of people, not a building. But place is important.

LAIRD: When looking at the gospels, they didn’t have an actual church, and yet you look at the Old Testament and you see how much importance was put on the temple. 

AUDIO: [Sound of church bells ringing]

The sound of ringing bells is coming from New York Avenue Presbyterian Church where Abraham Lincoln used to attend services. The bells are easy to hear. The large building — near a major intersection — is easy to see. And it’s doors are open. Men and women who live on the streets come and go. That’s because the church and city have worked together to offer a day services center. Laird wants to see more of that, especially between nonprofits. 

LAIRD: We’re working with a congregation right now that has this amazing ministry to Syrian refugees. And yet they have moved offices three times. And there’s just not the consistency to really be able to minister to people because they’re constantly moving. 

Laird is trying to help them find a more permanent home. She knows of another church that has unused office space. 

LAIRD: We’re working with the historic congregation downtown who’s thinking through how to use their space. So match them to rent their space while they’re also thinking about the long-term strategic plan of their church.

If the two congregations shared space, it would bring together people with different life experiences, economics, and races to serve the city together. 

LAIRD: My understanding of the kingdom of God is actually greatly improved when I am worshipping with people who don’t look like me, and whose life experience isn’t like mine. 

Laird pointed out that preserving church buildings isn’t only of interest to religious people. The space can be used for a soup kitchen, for theater and the arts, or as a third space. By third space, Laird means a place that doesn’t have economic barriers.

LAIRD: The famous ones are the cafes of France or the barber shops of Brazil. These buildings have long served as third spaces, gathering spaces where people can join across economic lines, can join across racial lines and gather together. The last thing that we need right now as a country is more division, right? 

Churches with a long-term presence in the city can also offer social services and emergency needs that are hard for the government to provide. 

LAIRD: When someone is in crisis, they don’t go stand down in the line at the Department of Housing. They see a church and they knock on the door. 

Another thing that helps churches keep an open presence in the city is when neighbors are involved and use their skills to serve.

LAIRD: So maybe you’re a lawyer or you’re an architect or you’re a communication professional or you’re a nonprofit executive. There’s so many ways that you can be an encouragement and of assistance, especially to historic congregations. 

Laird is currently working with eight different congregations in Capitol Hill and hopes they all stay. 

LAIRD: For too long in the city we’ve sorta been divided as “I’m this, or I’m that.” Instead of seeing ourselves as one body, and that when one part of the body suffers, the other parts of the body need to love it and minister to it. How can we think about how to support and encourage and use influence that we might have to support these brothers and sisters also.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Jenny Rough, reporting from Washington, D.C.

(Photo/BuzzBuzz) Little Red Chapel in Washington, D.C. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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