Black and White Pastors in D.C. Separate After Deal Over Church Building Use and Tithes Falls Apart

Rev. Jalene C. Chase-Sands, pastor of Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church DARROW MONTGOMERY
Rev. Jalene C. Chase-Sands, pastor of Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church

A black congregation in a beautiful old church on H Street is fighting to preserve its space and identity as the surrounding neighborhood gentrifies. “I need people to understand that the cross is not for sale,” says Rev. Jalene C. Chase-Sands, pastor of Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church. She is referring to the funds her church will be forfeiting by walking away from a 3-year-old arrangement with a church called Table.

Douglas opened its doors to Table, a new and predominately white congregation that has yet to purchase its own building, in 2013. Douglas was struggling financially at the time, so its then-pastor Rev. Helen Stafford Fleming, who has since retired, found a solution in the partnership. “I had to find ways to get the young, white professionals in,” Fleming says. “God said, ‘Go into your community.’ Well, my community’s white. So I had to find a way to get to that community.”

Table began holding services in the sanctuary at 5 p.m. on Sundays, when Douglas members were done using their church for the day. In return for the space, Table would pay Douglas 30 percent of its tithes. The arrangement was made as trendy new stores and pricey condominiums replaced longtime businesses and buildings on H Street, and it allowed Douglas to keep its doors open. As Table grew from 15 members to more than 100, its tithe, and thus its payment to Douglas, increased too. It allowed Douglas, which has about 15 to 30 in attendance each Sunday, to pay for salaries, utilities, and repairs on its building.

But that arrangement appears to be falling apart.

Douglas and Table now have a scheduling conflict that calls into question which congregation controls the church. Their struggle is emblematic of the challenges old-guard D.C. congregations, many of them African American, face in neighborhoods that are changing around the church buildings they own.

As his congregation grew, Table pastor Kevin Lum concluded that his 5 p.m. time slot at Douglas was not ideal. He decided he instead wanted to hold Table services at 10 a.m.—the time the Douglas congregation has been meeting for decades.

Lum researched the H Street neighborhood, his own congregation, and overall church attendance, resolving to push for a morning service for his church, even if it meant a blow to Douglas. “To go where we need to go long term … we need to get rid of our evening services. Evening service really limits your demographic,” Lum said over the summer. “If you look, there’s not many kids and not many families there.”

Lum, who is white, says his research shows that a 5 p.m. service will always attract fewer blacks because of cultural traditions. Blacks, he says, are accustomed to going to church early. “I talked to some friends who were trying to build communities that were more diverse, and it’s kind of hard because African-American culture in the U.S. tends to be pretty traditional faith-wise. And to go to church on Sunday nights is just kind of a weird thing.”

Lum met with Chase-Sands last April to discuss H Street’s demographics, telling her the community needed a multicultural service on Sunday mornings. After their talk, and compelled by Lum’s findings, Chase-Sands agreed to surrender the 10 a.m. slot to Table.

But this meant that Chase-Sands had to sell the idea of a time change to the members of her congregation, who have always attended church at 10 a.m. Fleming, who initiated the partnership, was preparing to retire, and Chase-Sands was transitioning into pastor of Douglas, while also continuing in her other job as full-time pastor at a neighboring church called Community. Both pastors and Lum met with the members of Douglas to explain that the Douglas flock would need to worship in the afternoon.

Antoinette Curry, who was married at Douglas four years ago, says the news of a time adjustment made her feel like a visitor in her own home. “If this is our church, why didn’t we have a say so on the time? If this is our church, why do we get pushed late, and they can come in early?” Though Chase-Sands fielded other similar complaints from her congregation, the pastors moved forward, planning to start the schedule change in September.

It never materialized. “Two weeks before the September launch date,” says Chase-Sands, “[Lum] came to me and said, ‘Well, we’re not launching in September. Maybe in January or February.’”

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Source: Washington City Paper | QUINTIN J. SIMMONS