For more than a century, Metropolitan Baptist Church was one of the premier churches in Washington. And for nearly 40 years, the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. forged a reputation as a “preacher’s preacher,” gathering a flock of as many as 7,000 people at the red brick church at 13th and R streets NW. It was a must stop for local politicians during election seasons, and sitting presidents, including Bill Clinton, would attend services there.
Now, the congregation is meeting in a D.C. school building, its membership down by nearly 70 percent. An unfinished $30 million sanctuary in Prince George’s County is under threat of foreclosure. And Hicks has announced his retirement.
Some former members say perhaps the church overreached. But its decline coincided with a financial crisis that rocked the nation’s investment and real estate markets, taking down churches across the country.
In the Washington area, Progressive Baptist Church in Temple Hills, Md., which owed more than $2.86 million on its mortgage, went into foreclosure in 2009. The Ark of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012. Last year, Light Global Mission Church in Fairfax County filed for Chapter 11 reorganization.
“No place was immune,” said Robert F. Cook, executive vice president at Reliance Trust Co., one of the largest providers of corporate trust services for churches that issue bonds and the lender working with Metropolitan. “That has been true for churches.”
Cook said churches were seeing their collections drop by as much as 30 percent.
In 2009, Hicks described the situation this way: “Very often, the choice is extremely stark: ‘Shall I place food on the table for my children? Or shall I place money in the plate as I’ve been instructed?’ That’s not an easy choice to make.”
‘God’s Land in Largo’
All Hicks wanted to do was lead his historic congregation to a gleaming new sanctuary, one befitting the heights his religious community had reached. He even had a name for Metropolitan Baptist Church’s proposed home in Prince George’s County: “God’s Land in Largo.”
“We wanted to expand our ministry,” Hicks said. “We had purchased a parcel that was suitable for our ministry simply for the purpose of reaching a wider population.”
But in the midst of the financial crisis and unable to obtain more financing to cover what church officials say were cost overruns, construction on Metropolitan’s planned 150,000-square-foot sanctuary halted. The congregation was left without a permanent home.
Now, the congregation founded 150 years ago by freed slaves is at a crossroads. As leaders begin to search for a new senior pastor, many former members and church leaders are asking questions about why Metropolitan’s once-promising future faded.
Although some look optimistically at the future, others say the once glorious vision of a mega-church in Largo may never come to fruition.
“When one of your oldest churches leaves town, that is like a monument moving out of town,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the city’s voice in Congress. “It was a real blow to lose it. I hated to see it go, but it went.”
Many current and former members of Metropolitan are still saddened by the church’s decision to move to the suburbs. Its decline in membership and influence is a source of pain for many who once flocked to the church to hear one of the country’s preeminent theologians.
“It breaks my heart to see them in this situation. . . . They should have stayed right in the city,” said a former member of the church, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It will take a unique man or woman of God to bring it back to where it was.”
Hicks clings to faith that the church will survive.
“What we are is beyond bricks and mortar, which is something that over time will decay,” said Hicks, who in 1993 was voted by Ebony Magazine as of one America’s “Fifteen Greatest African American Preachers.”
Currently, the church is meeting at the historic Armstrong Manual Training School in Northwest Washington. In Largo, the church building remains unfinished.
The unrealized vision challenges Hicks, who announced last month that he has Parkinson’s disease.
“I don’t think what has happened can be measured by the building,” Hicks said, “or the fact that it stands today in an incomplete form. We know that one day God will have God’s way.”
Source: Washington Post | DeNeen L. Brown and Hamil R. Harris