The Rev. Selena Johnson, the pastor of Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Georgetown, celebrated her birthday Thursday sharing cupcakes with her family.
Earlier in the day, Ms. Johnson received a different birthday gift: formal notification that Mount Zion — the District’s oldest Black congregation at 205 years old — will receive $100,000 from the National Fund for Sacred Places.
The fund also announced grants to the Washington National Cathedral and St. John’s Lafayette Square, both Episcopal Church congregations in Washington.
More than $2 million was awarded to 15 congregations nationally, with the three District churches matching three churches in Pennsylvania for the largest number of grantees in a single city or state. The fund is supported by the Lilly Endowment, Inc., the Indiana-based charitable foundation that directs many of its resources towards the support of clergy and congregational projects.
“I’m just very very thankful to the National Fund, and just excited to be a part of this program,” Ms. Johnson said in a telephone interview. “I’m very grateful to all the team members who have put in so much work and are excited about the whole process.”
Mount Zion hopes to raise a total of $200,000 for this phase of the renovation project dubbed “A Safer, Greener Space” that will fix some hazards in the building including safety railings for the balcony, repairs to the balcony and choir loft floors, and the repair and refurbishment of the building’s rear steps.
“We’re trying to make things more energy efficient, and then look at the places where things are hazards and dangerous,” Ms. Johnson explained. She said the renovations bring together her earlier career as an architect with her current ministerial vocation. Local architect Louis Fry III will work with the church on the renovation plan, according to the group’s funding application.
The grant will cover half the project’s costs, and Mount Zion will raise the other half, working with a fundraising consultant as well as volunteering members.
“I think it really speaks to our kind of revitalization of our community as well because it will help us go on to your fundraising campaign, so that we can talk to more people in the community, and make more people aware of the facility, and what our history is about,” she said.
Established at a time when Georgetown was primarily African-American, Mount Zion played a role in the Underground Railroad system of transporting fugitive slaves to freedom and safety in the North. Ms. Johnson said the church used a crypt at its cemetery, intended to store bodies during the winter when the ground couldn’t be broken for new graves, to hide the fugitives.
“We used to say, ‘No one would think to look for the living among the dead,’” she said about the crypt.
Ms. Johnson hopes the fundraising effort will draw more attention to the historic congregation, which next year will release a film on the important role it played in Black life in the District.
“We like to call ourselves the cradle of Black Methodism in DC,” she said.
Washington National Cathedral spokesman Kevin Eckstrom said that the church will receive $250,000 from the grant program.
That money “will be paired with a $500,000 match that will be raised by the Cathedral,” he said in an email. “All funds will go to ongoing earthquake repair. This particular grant will go toward work along the south side of the Cathedral nave (the long stretch that faces the city). In particular, it will be used to repair a tall buttress that is directly above a handicapped-accessible entrance. That entrance has been mostly off-limits since the earthquake, and this repair will allow us to reopen to visitors and parishioners who need ADA access.”
St. John’s Lafayette Square, the victim of arson last year amidst racial justice protests, will receive $100,000 of a $150,000 request to help restore the church’s historic bell tower. Congregation officials did not respond to requests from The Washington Times for comment.
Other grant recipients this year went to:
• Amana Church Society, Middle Amana, Iowa.
• Arch Street United Methodist Church, Philadelphia.
• Calvary United Methodist Church, Philadelphia.
• First Christian Church, Columbus, Ind.
• First Indian Presbyterian Church, Kamiah, Idaho.
• First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh.
• Grace Episcopal Church, Newton Corner, Mass.
• Let Freedom Ring Foundation/First Baptist Church, Williamsburg, Va.
• Sacred Heart Parish, El Paso, Texas.
• St. Stephen United Methodist Church, Mesquite, Texas.
• St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church, Brooklyn, N.Y
• Tabernacle Baptist Church, Beaufort, S.C.