Christmas Eve worship welcomes D.C. congregation into new home

Christmas Eve worship welcomes D.C. congregation into new home

December 18, 2011
Written by Gregg Brekke

"I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit." Lamentations 3:55

Celebrating what is nothing short of a Christmas miracle, members and friends of First Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., will join together Christmas Eve for their first service in a newly constructed sanctuary located at the busy intersection of 10th and G Streets.

The project was an ambitious one: Turn an aging red brick church in dire need of capital improvements and lacking architectural continuity with its surroundings into an inviting and economically viable space, while maintaining the presence of the church in the community.

Beginning in 2004, members of the church undertook a study with the local builders and architects to design the structure that now houses the church on its first two stories and commercial office space in the eight floors above.

But along the way, the initial builder ran out of funding during the economic downturn of 2008 and ceased development. Demolition of the old church had already taken place. Excavation of the foundation and four stories of underground parking had been completed when they pulled the plug.

Staring into the abyss of a 60-foot hole where the church once stood, Byron Adams, member of First and part of the original design team, was more than a little dismayed when he heard the news that construction had been halted.

"We had financing for three days and then everything fell apart," says Adams of the project's sudden end. The congregation had put up its land as security against the loan needed to begin work but the developer was unable to continue, even with this guarantee.

While those involved looked for new funding sources, the site sat as a physical reminder of the financial crisis. It sat. And sat. And sat. For over a year no progress was made on the building until well-known Swedish developer, Skanska Commercial Development Inc., was contacted to reassess the plan.

Church members continued to believe in the project even as setbacks and financing issues lingered on. During the early 2000s, housing and retail locations flourished in this downtown area of Washington, D.C., located between two of the busiest commuter rail stations in the city – Metro Center and Chinatown. Skanska agreed with the church's high assessment of the property's potential. The project officially transferred to them in 2009 and construction quickly resumed.

Known for its historic social justice actions – including being the first racially integrated church in the District of Columbia following the American Civil War – First Congregational UCC met at nearby First Trinity Lutheran church during five years of construction. Because of the host church's worship schedule, First Congregational met Sundays at 1pm. Though a majority of members continued in attendance through the transition, Adams believes some are waiting to return to a more traditional morning service schedule and setting.

Following the inaugural Christmas Eve service, Christmas Day and New Year's Day services will be held at the temporary site while construction tasks, including reinstallation of the church's existing Casavant pipe organ, are completed. Regular Sunday services will resume at "10th and G" beginning Jan. 8, 2012.

"This is an extraordinary congregation," says Meg Maguire, church member and chair of the site development task force. "I think we're a stronger congregation because we undertook this project. We learn how strong we are when we confront  issues and work together."

"We believe [the architects and designers] have done an amazing job at creating a building that is very contextual to what is around it," says Adams of the building.

And while the building is contextual, it is also unique. A large bronze sculpture – an abstract cross – juts from the corner of the building on 10th and G Streets, extending the sightline of the structure from every angle and setting it apart from surrounding buildings with their neatly squared corners. Two large opaque glass light boxes protrude from the building plane on either street. Its black brick and glass façade reflect the busy city around it.

"Ultimately," says Maguire, "it's not about the building but the people who will come and our service to the city."

The Rev. Sid Fowler, First's transition minister, sees great opportunity for the congregation and the use of the building. He says the congregation is "listening to the building to see how God will use it" to move the church into new ministry areas.

"We're starting ministry in our new location with baptisms," says Fowler. "We'll have two infant baptisms at our first services in January. We're already beginning God's new call [to the congregation] with the celebration of new life."

A transition team has begun to identify other ministry opportunities. "We have a number of homeless people who are vital participants in the congregation," says Fowler. "We are listening to them to see how to be partners in ministry."

In addition to the listening and planning sessions, Fowler says the congregation will offer "curious Wednesdays" that invite people passing by to come in and look the church over. He also plans to convene ecumenical and interfaith groups to explore emerging models of urban ministry with members of First.

"This church has stood on this ground since the 1860s," concludes Fowler. "We're very aware of the ground we're building on and plan to honor the voices of the saints who have gone before us."

Details of the 188,000 square foot building include:

  • Gold LEED environmental sustainability certification
  • 90 percent of original church materials reused/recycled in new construction
  • 6,195 square foot green roof
  • Universal accessibility design allows full access to entire building
  • 24,000 square foot church space accommodates main sanctuary, small worship spaces, classrooms, offices and meeting facilities with commercial kitchen
  • Located next to the historic Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, the building maintains the "look and feel" of the neighborhood.

A dedication service for the new facility will be held February 26, 2012 at 3:30pm. The congregation has extended an invitation to any who would like to attend the service at which the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, and others will be on hand to mark a significant day in the life of this historic UCC church.

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