Monday, March 19, 2007

Sunlight, Hippos, and Blue Sky

Two of our buildings at Mount Vernon Place are finally ready to come down. After a long process of negotiating with developers, the abatement of asbestos, and the removal of windows, the demolition permit is finally ready. The two educational buildings will be demolished after the first of May, and demolition day cannot come soon enough as far as I am concerned -- we have been waiting and waiting and waiting.

The buildings look rather condemned right now. There is no electricity going into the buildings, so the lights remain off. No one is occupying the buildings right now (at least that we know of). Furthermore, there is an ugly fence that goes around the buildings with large "keep out: construction zone" signs posted at the entrance. I watch people pass by often throughout the day, wondering what they are thinking when they stop and look at the church. Fortunately, we have banners in different places informing people that while our building is closed our church is still open.

While I know that some of the members of Mount Vernon Place are hurting over the decision to demolish two of our buildings so that something new can emerge, I must admit that there is little remaining charm to these two buildings. The cost of operating the buildings is horrendous. Some of the walls and floors have been in need of repair for some time now. Furthermore, the only way Mount Vernon Place could possibly begin to afford the repair bill for the historic church is through the sale of the property on which these two buildings are situated.

But there is one room in the buildings that catches my attention each time I walk by the church now. There is one place where a glimmer of life still shines. From Massachusetts Avenue you can see painted on the wall a bright blue sky, a hippo swimming in the water, and a brilliant orange sun shining for all to see. I never appreciated this room before, when children were still using it. But now the room is the only thing that speaks to me, seemingly calling out, "why would you let go of this?"

The room reminds me a lot of my journey at Mount Vernon Place. When I was appointed as the pastor of the church in the summer of 2005, I was told often about how the congregation had decided that it had done what it could do and that they would one day close the doors, returning the property to the Baltimore-Washington Conference. When I arrived, there was a large sum of money in the bank, and the congregation had voted to spend this money on whatever it wanted, keeping different activities going even though the congregation had dwindled to a small, remaining remnant and the activities were not bringing many new people into the congregation. "We voted to spend this money and once it is gone, we'll give the church back to the conference," I was told time and again. The money would last for four years at the rate the congregation was spending -- something that caused me serious concern.

For the last 20 months, I have been trying to find the places where there is still a glimmer of life at Mount Vernon Place. I have been looking for the places where bright sunlight is still shining, where hippos are still swimming, and where a blue sky still provides calm -- in a church where the membership roster once had over 4500 names but where the active membership is now 88.

What has amazed me is how easy it has been to find the sunlight, hippos and blue sky. The members of Mount Vernon Place represent an uncanny ability to be absolutely resilient. I know of no other pastor in the country who arrived at a church with a 92-year-old Finance Chair, a 90-year-old Lay Leader and a 96-year-old chair of Staff Parish Relations. What sunlight -- to have people serving so faithfully in their 90s!

We have a Minister of Music who has been at the church over 30 years. She has watched her choir soar to the place where everyone could not fit in the loft and dwindle to a remaining 7 faithful voices. Still, she continues in her role, along with her husband who is the one at the church who is always willing to lend a hand no matter what the task is. What sunlight!!

We have a group of older adults who gather for Bible study once a week. They drive in from Northern Virginia to meet in our trailer where at the ages of 80 and 90, they continue to struggle with how to be more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. What sunlight!!

And now there are new pockets of sunlight pouring into Mount Vernon Place. We have new members who are taking active roles in the life of the congregation. We have new condominiums and apartment buildings going up all around us -- thousands of new residents who call our neighborhood home. We have new ministries that have emerged from a prayer shawl knitting ministry to a ministry for men on Saturday mornings. We have been collecting different things for Easter baskets for a ministry that serves homeless children and women, and people have given so faithfully. We have two very gifted interns from a nearby seminary. We have people going out into the community to serve in the name of the Lord. We have an atmosphere in worship where people can come just as they are and share whatever it is that is on their hearts. What sunlight!

The sun is still shining, the hippos are still swimming and the blue sky is providing calm!!

We're going to destroy two of our buildings soon so that something new can emerge. Still, Mount Vernon Place's doors are not closing. We intend for them to stay open well beyond four years from now. We are building a building that we hope will still be providing a beacon of light to the city 100 years from now. And, slowly but surely, many of our members who once said, "We'll spend our money and then close" are now excited -- not about closing the church but about making sure that the doors stay open in the decades to come.

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

YEAH! I've missed reading your blog. I'm glad you've posted for I love reading what wonderful things are happening in your congregation. Thanks for giving this importantly located church another chance (What a great statement to be offered during the season of Lent!).

I have learned of your dedication and love of your people there in D.C. May God continue to strengthen and guide you and the congregation of Mt. Vernon Place.

Amy's Starbucks friend