The Godly Urbanist Impulse
So it turns out that the building that initially spurred my interest in religious real estate–Faith Bible Church (Remixed) at 1350 Maryland Avenue NE–didn't fit into the story I ultimately ended up writing, which looks at about churches getting back into the housing business. But I did attend services Saturday night with the little congregation, learned what they'd been through, and what was coming next.
The big old building isn't in great shape, with a peeling ceiling, and wooden pews close to breaking in places. Pastor Lewis Tait Jr. doesn't even know when it was built–his father started the church back in 1959, and moved to the Maryland Avenue location in 1976, after hopping around from Benning Road to E Street NE to New York Avenue. The elder Tait passed away in 1996, and the church entered a 12-year rocky period under another pastor, which Tait Jr. doesn't want to talk about. “Under his leadership, it didn’t fare very well," as he puts it.
Tait returned last year from ministerial stints in Atlanta and Pennsylvania, and is hoping to rebuild the small congregation with a casual and welcoming atmosphere (hence the "remixed"). During the sermon, he walks around with an iPad and encourages his congregants to Facebook and Tweet about their shared vow of going vegan for a period after the new year. This was the Saturday before the Super Bowl, and Steelers jerseys predominated; a big-screen T.V. sat ready at the altar for their watch party the next day. "In the past, they would have said that was desecrating the sanctuary," Tait says.
Even with a new pastor, the old building is an albatross, considering how much it would cost to renovate. But more important than its physical condition is its form: The big auditorium with its fixed pews isn't usable for much other than services, the basement is unusable, and there's little in the way of other community space. For his next building–to be financed by the $3.2 million he's asking for the land–Tait wants something that will be more of a neighborhood resource, and even play a role in the revitalization of surrounding businesses. And instead of fleeing to the suburbs, like many other churches have done, he wants to be "a part of the city."
“Today, a church has to also be a place where a lot of different things can go on, other than just a Sunday service,” he says. “It does’t make sense to pour millions into a facility, and you can only use it once a week.”
That's an exciting thing to hear from a church, since they can often be dead spaces during weekdays. In a way, despite the Temple of Praise's abysmal design from an urbanist standpoint–blank on three sides, surrounded by a moat of surface parking–Bishop Glen Staples' plan to bring in resources like a credit union and retail franchises is a step on the way to a truly livable area.
And of course the ultimate example of a religious institution going urbanist is the National Community Church's plan to build a performance space/childcare/coffee shop complex on a big chunk of 8th Street SE below the freeway. The folks from Barracks Row Main Street are psyched about the idea, because it'll be the first big project to move in an area that's been difficult to bring to life, drawing foot traffic south and hopefully encouraging other property owners to get their butts in gear as well.
All of which is to say: Just like the rest of the world, houses of worship are starting to get it.