I have just arrived in Washington DC for the three-day Religion Newswriters Association conference, an event I travel to every year. The conference actually begins tomorrow afternoon, so I had almost a full free day to roam the city and find some good places to pray with beads.
Sometimes, when I visit a city, I prepare. I mean, really prepare. I read the guide books, plan the sites I will visit and the routes I will take (see my Seattle entries!). This time, because of a couple of things I was writing just before leaving, I did not have the time to prepare. So, as I walked out of the conference hotel at about 12:30, I had no set place in mind. I looked to my right – the White House was somewhere over there – and I looked to my left. Three church spires loomed in the distance, and off I went in that direction.
Sometimes, giving things over to the power of serendipity – or whatever higher power you might aspire to – pays off.
The first church I came to was Luther Place Memorial Church, an 18th century red stone church on a point formed by the intersection of Vermont Avenue and 14th Street, just across from Thomas Circle. I rang the church bell and a nice young lady – I think I remember her name was Allison (and if it wasn’t, please accept my apologies now – I am 44 and my memory just does not hold things like it should anymore!) let me in and offered me a personal guided tour of the sanctuary.
Allison told me a bit of the history of this great red lady of a church. It was built in the 1870s as a memorial to the Civil War and the statue of Martin Luther that dominates the grounds is a replica of the one of Luther in Worms and was sent by Germany to commemorate the old reformer’s 400th birthday.
In 1968, following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there were riots in the neighborhood and some hooligans set fire to nearby houses. People sought refuge from the violence at the church, which was advised by its insurers not to open its doors. But the pastor and other church leaders had other ideas – a church should be a place of sanctuary and they opened the doors. Over five days, more than 10,000 people came to the church to be sheltered and fed.
I loved the inside of this church, with its high wooden beams and its silver organ pipes and the stained glass windows depicting reformers and martyrs, including King, Luther, John Wesley, Harriet Tubman and others. I think its quiet and the filtered sunlight make it a great place to meditate and pray with beads – but I did not take the time to do it today because I did not want to inconvenience Allison, who works in the church in the Steinbruck Center for Urban Studies. She was unfailingly gracious to me, and I am sure the church and its employees would be to anyone who wants to visit. I suggest you call first – 202-667-1377.
Here is a picture of my favorite Luther Place windows:
After leaving Luther Place Memorial Church, I walked across the street to the National City Christian Church, a columned church made of grey square stones and sporting a high steeple with bells. I walked into the office, signed in with the receptionist who gave me directions to the circa 1884 sanctuary.
Folks, this is a church. It reminded my of my trip to St. James Cathedral in Seattle – the utter stillness inside the urban sanctuary. It was a complete pool of calmness and silence in the middle of one of the country’s most bustling cities. Take a look at these stained glass windows. Look at the absolute jewelled quality of the light that falls through. And look at this picture of the altar – a wooden carving of the Last Supper.
I took a seat on one of the crimson pew cushions and took out my prayer beads – in this case, an Anglican set I made from rose quartz and green jade.
As I have written here before, when I visit a church to pray, I like to find something in the church – a bulletin, a hymnal, a missal – from which to draw my prayers. It makes me feel connected to the congregation, who I will never see or worship with. This time, no bulletins! But up on the altar was a Bible, open to Psalm 31 and Psalm 32 (see my beads in the picture?). Those Psalms are very close to one of my favorite verses, so here is what I prayed on the weeks:
“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5
This verse has special meaning to me. It was the subject of a sermon preached once by one of my favorite pastors, the Rev K Karpen, when he was the associate pastor at my old home church, St. Paul and St. Andrew UMC in NYC. K ( and he just goes by the initial) had us repeat the phrase in unison – the whole congregation. If I remember the gist of th sermon, it was about the fact that the UMC had failed to (yet again) pass a resolution welcoming and affirming persons of all sexual lifestyles. The idea was that we were weeping now, but eventually we would triumph. I remember it as one of the most invigorating sermons I had ever heard. How interesting that the Bible at this church would be open to that page.
I left feeling refreshed and reconnected to my old church. All this in the middle of a strange city in which I was a solitary traveler. Not bad for serendipity.
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