Sunday, April 29, 2007

Luther Place Rededication

There is no church that was more important to my own spiritual development than Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C. I worshipped there from 1985-1988 (when I was a young law clerk) and then in 1997-2001 (when I was in the Clinton Administration). It has a rich liturgical tradition combined with an outreach to the poorest of the poor.

I was therefore pleased to read that a long-planned restoration of this grand old church has finally come to completion:

Worshippers at the Luther Place Memorial Church in Northwest yesterday celebrated their role as a bridge between the District's black and white communities inside a historic monument to Reconstruction after the Civil War.


The occasion was a rededication service marking a two-year, $2 million restoration of the Northwest church, which was built in 1873 as a physical act of reconciliation between the North and the South.


The church, on 14th Street near Thomas Circle, even has pews in the front dedicated to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and then-President Ulysses S. Grant, the former commander of the Union Army.


"It was designed to be a living testament for reconciliation. It started off with that spirit, then it fell into physical disrepair in the '70s and '80s," said John Hamre, former deputy secretary of defense in the Clinton White House and a congregation member since 1973. "It's only now, recently, that we've been able to bring the church back."

And despite its Reconstruction-era roots, the year that many people focused on yesterday was 1968. In that year, Martin Luther King was felled by an assassin, and leaders of the church faced a tough decision about whether to close their doors and protect the church or brave the ensuing riots and continue to minister to the community.

"It was the key year for me that's determined everything that's happened afterwards," said the Rev. Robert M. Holum, noting that he arrived at the church in 1968.

The church stayed open and, in the years since, has housed a free medical clinic, substance-abuse programs, homeless shelters, food and clothing distribution programs, a burial plot for homeless persons and the city's first residence for homeless women. "The story of that church is the story of Washington, D.C.," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. "Luther Place is a steward and beacon -- both of its beautiful buildings and of its commitment to acts of faith through good works."

The renovation included a repainting and plastering of the sanctuary, the installation of a new sound system and baseboard heating, and a restoration of the church's organ, its hardwood floors and balcony woodwork. The highlight was the installation of four new stained-glass windows in the front of the building honoring King, Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian who fought against -- and was executed by -- the Nazis.

"Each one of these four figures represents freedom, ultimately, different dimensions of freedom," Mr. Hamre said. "The four have this very unifying, shared theme, that in various ways that the church is responsible for freedom in the world."

The four figures enshrined in glass -- two white German theologians and two black civil rights leaders -- represent the Lutheran church's goals as much as the duality of the church, which hosts the predominantly white Luther Place congregation and the largely black Unity Fellowship Church.

"Martin Luther himself was an advocate for social justice," said the Rev. Abena McCray, leader of the Unity Fellowship Church in the District. "We don't have the exact same doctrines, but as far as our social justice outreach, we do the exact same thing."


Read it all. For more about Luther Place, its social ministries, and its renovation (including pictures) go to the Luther Place website.

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