This week we’re featuring the 16th Street neighborhood in Northwest DC, just north of Columbia Heights. Informally known as “church row,” the area contains a remarkably high concentration of churches from a variety of Christian denominations. Guest blogger Sudip Bhattacharya gives us an intimate look into this multicultural faith community in NW DC.
By Sudip Bhattacharya
Rev. Larry Owens Jr. begins with a confession.
“I don’t listen to gospel music only” he admits, causing some of those at the front and middle pews to gasp. Rev. Owens leans forward from his pulpit and grins. He explains how he can’t stop listening to the R and B singer Jill Scott, and how he especially loves the song “Hate on Me.”
“Our President took the troops out of Iraq and now we got critics blaming him for not doing it soon enough” he booms, and allows for the congregation to clap and yell, “preach!”
Rev. Owen is 37 and wears wire-thin glasses. He is wide-shouldered and tells jokes. He holds service at Canaan Baptist Church, a few blocks from All Souls Church, Unitarian, Christ Lutheran Church, Shrine Sacred Heart Church, Sixth Presbyterian Church, Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church, National Memorial Baptist Church, St. Stephen & Incarnation Church, and Church of Christ.
Before Rev. Owens takes the stage, a thin man with graying hair and a woman with a quivering voice sing as loud as they can, as members of the congregation clap along. The walls are bursting with live piano and 16th Street is soon turned into a concert hall.
For Betty Curtis, the Church has been a source of family for over 60 years.
“I grew up in this neighborhood,” says Curtis, “and I don’t think I’ve missed a single service.”
At the end of the sermon, the congregation stands to hold hands. A woman creased from years of living uses her cane as support, as tears stream down her cheeks.
“It’s a place to get revived, to cleanse yourself for another day,” says Deloris Wray, “It’s where I can prepare for the week ahead.”
When the sermon had started, the sky was bruised and gray. By the time members of the church step out, they are blinking in the sunlight. They hug one another and for those who are limping and hunched, vans wait for them to take them home.
Mary Bettis wears her black hat, and holds the railing as she walks down the front steps.
“I don’t live in D.C.,” says Bettis, “but I come here because this is my home.”
She then waves to someone she knows in the crowd, and heads in their direction. She staggers past a young man who is standing with his hands in his pockets. The young man peeks over at a group of women his age who are giggling in a circle. The young man sighs at the ground. During the service, that same young man had lowered eyelids and didn’t laugh at any of Rev. Owens’ jokes.
At the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, five minutes away, the pews are still crowded. People stand against the walls, as Pastor Moises Villalta sermonizes in Spanish.
The stained-glass windows are a myriad of colors, showing Jesus carrying the cross, even on his knees. Soon, Pastor Villalta crosses his fingers over his chest and face, and everyone kneels to pray, even those who had to stand.
The Shrine of the Sacred Heart is the size of an auditorium. The sound of a crying baby echoes. As men and women pray, a little boy races his toy car along the tiled floor. A woman wearing a suit and heels rests her head against the back of a pew, as another boy giggles and runs away from his mother.
When mass is over, Pastor Kevin J. Thompson, wearing his green robes, stands at the entrance to shake hands with congregants. He is a tall white man with sunken cheeks, and says, “Hasta Luego” and “Buena Dia” to each person he sees. One young man shows him a framed picture of Mother Mary, which Pastor Thompson blesses.
“We are a multicultural community,” says Pastor Thompson, “We offer comfort. We also provide food and shelter, and a place to be.”
A few steps away are a young man and his friend. During mass, they had stayed outside wearing their dress shirts and pressed pants.
One of the young men is pacing the front steps. His friend is sitting and watching traffic. The young man who can’t stop pacing finally slows down to take a breath. His friend yawns and soon, they begin to talk.
As congregants greet Pastor Thompson, the young men are still talking to each other in English, about school, about girls, about Monday.