- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 1, 2003

Street crime, lack of parking, marching protesters, marathon runners — going to church on any given Sunday in the District often requires the patience of Job.

“That has been my experience,” said the Rev. R. Clinton Washington, pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Georgetown.

His congregation has dwindled by about 25 percent over the years because getting to the church at 2600 P St. NW has become too much of a hassle. “A lot of folks are moving to churches in Maryland because they just can’t get here,” he said.

Mr. Washington’s experience is shared by many other city churches, whose leaders and members said going to Sunday services has long been a test of faith in the District. And the most common problem by far is a lack of parking.

In fact, parking “is a nightmare,” said the Rev. David Eugene Massey, pastor of Grace Reformed Church.

Like many churches in the District, Grace Reformed does not have its own parking lot. Members used to share the lot belonging to First Baptist Church across from Grace Reformed at 15th and O streets NW. But when First Baptist moved last year, Grace Reformed lost the use of about 50 spaces.

Mr. Massey said he does not know why First Baptist moved. He worked out a deal with city police so that seven or eight cars can be parked in an alley behind a nearby Fresh Fields grocery — not enough for Grace’s congregation of 30.

The Rev. Marvin W. Rodgers Jr. of Alexander Memorial Baptist Church, at 27th and N streets NW, said he tells his congregation to come in time for Sunday school at 9:30 a.m. if they want to park in front of the church for the 11 a.m. service.

“What we do is get here early so we can park easily and praise the Lord,” Mr. Rodgers said. “Parking has always been a problem in Georgetown. We really can’t do anything about it.”

City churches face a larger challenge when special events draw crowds. For instance, last week’s Marine Corps Marathon, which attracted more than 16,000 runners, kept many churchgoers away.

“We had probably about 100 people come,” Mr. Washington said, adding that 200 to 300 members usually attend services on Sundays.

Mr. Rodgers also noted lower attendance last week — about 50 members attended, compared to the usual 65 to 75.

“A lot of our congregation come from Bowie, Gaithersburg and Greenbelt, anyhow. When there is something big, like the marathon, they just can’t compete with the traffic and crowds,” the Alexander Memorial Baptist pastor said.

The District’s crime rate also weighs heavy on the minds of many churchgoers.

About five months ago, a member’s car was stolen while he was attending services at Mount Zion United Methodist Church on 29th Street NW, said Mount Zion member Joan Turner.

Miss Turner has attended the church since 1989, and she notes a loss in membership every year attributed to crime and parking woes.

Last month, midweek churchgoers on 16th Street NW saw a gang-related shooting that erupted in the street. One person was killed, one was injured and five were arrested.

The Rev. Bobbie Garrett leads Meridian Hill Baptist Church — just a few blocks from where the Oct. 9 shooting occurred. He said the violence has not hurt attendance on Sundays, when gang activity is infrequent, but attendance for midweek evening services has suffered.

“A lot of them [congregants] are scared to get out in the dark,” Mr. Garrett said.

Still, many are fortified by faith in the face of gang violence.

“My sins have been forgiven. I don’t fear from such things. Even if I would think we’d be a target, I’d still come to church,” said 28-year-old Carreen Behrens, who attends Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Northeast.

Carlos Aquino and wife Sonia lead the youth program at Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church on 16th Street NW. “I don’t feel affected by [the violence] at all. I actually come more now,” Mr. Aquino said.

Not all city churches share the same troubles. Allen Chapel AME Church, at 2498 Alabama Ave. SE, has 1,000 members, yet parking is never a problem. Neither is crime.

“We are right in the heart of the ghetto, you would say,” said Charles E. Young, a lifelong member of Allen Chapel.

Mr. Young attributes the church’s success to its strong community outreach. “If you don’t want to be outcast by the community, you have to give something to the community,” he said.

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