Writing a History
Today we bring to a close the year-long celebration of 150 years of Calvary Baptist Church! It has been a year full of wonderful experiences and of celebrating the legacy of this church and the joy of our life together. It will never happen again. Never again will we celebrate 150 years, and so, it’s right that we gather for the worship of God to mark this auspicious occasion together. Thank you so very much for being here today.
150 years ago when the first Calvary members were dreaming of what it might mean to be the church, things in our city and in our country were in chaos, full of tension and uncertainty. Abraham Lincoln had just begun his presidency. The District of Columbia was caught in the middle of two strong forces and ideologies, a Confederate Virginia and a Union Maryland. The Union army had been defeated at the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas. Nobody knew what was going to happen from day to day in this young country torn apart by a terrible, bloody war. The only thing that was certain was a whole lot of uncertainty.
Sounds like a perfect time to start a church, doesn’t it?
That year, in the middle of all that chaos in our country and in our city, 12 men and 13 women decided to found a church. This church. And now, 150 years later we look back and celebrate, thankful for the courage of those who decided something might be born in the middle of all of that chaos.
Since 1862, of course, there has been a long and rich history of this church, during which the congregation has had numerous occasions to celebrate anniversaries, to look back and reflect, to think and dream about what the future might hold. It was on the occasion of the church’s 50th birthday, for example, that Calvary member and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes commented: “I have had much to do with churches, and I have never seen a church like this….” What could be truer than that!? They didn’t know, they couldn’t see, but there were some among them who were prophets.
And so, today, if God is good…and God IS good…maybe 50 years from now the congregation of Calvary Baptist Church will be celebrating 200 years as a family of faith. And maybe somebody will be looking back at the life we’re living as Calvary Baptist Church right now and set to work writing another story, our story. I wonder what they would say?
I spoke to Olive Tiller this week, one of the authors of Calvary’s most recent published history. From what she described, writing a history is no small thing. But even without the help of years of research in the archives and an editorial committee’s guidance, this week I tried to imagine what somebody might write about us:
On the weekend of June 1-3, 2012, the congregation of Calvary Baptist Church celebrated 150 years. Everyone who attended the weekend celebration knew that something was a little different about this Baptist church, especially on Saturday night when the makeshift dance floor in Woodward Hall was crowded with all sorts of people. Dancing!
In 2012, the Calvary congregation was still recovering from a period of serious decline. Due to changes in the neighborhood, the preceding years had seen a sharp decrease in the number of people attending and participating in the life of the congregation. Crime and urban blight in the neighborhood around the church had turned Calvary into a lonely stronghold in the middle of empty parking lots and decrepit buildings. The population that previously lived and worked in the neighborhoods around the church had left—moving out to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia to find safer places to raise their families. During this time Calvary suffered the loss of many stalwart members. Still, there were a few who kept coming, who made the trek into the city to engage the life of the church. Something about the location of the church, the congregation’s long history and impact in the city, and the elusive call of God kept those people coming.
And after years of commitment throughout situations that did not seem hopeful in the least, circumstances gradually began to change. The neighborhood surrounding the church began an astonishing transformation; it became a bustling, vibrant neighborhood in which many people worked and lived. Along with its neighborhood, Calvary changed, too. You might even call it a rebirth, this change. Members who had for many years kept the doors open and the congregation vital in the Penn Quarter neighborhood were joined by more members. Little by little, it seemed that the church grew and changed, until there were gradually more people in the pews, and until the people in the pews looked very diverse—the same as the people on the sidewalks outside the church’s walls. The mission and legacy of the church continued, often in unexpected and unusual expressions.
And as the church grew and changed in new ways, old ways had to shift. The sacred ritual of cutting the Pepperidge Farm Lowfat white sandwich communion bread with a special knife into exactly uniform squares, for example, changed to a practice of celebrating communion in different ways as the occasion dictated, often using bread baked by community members. Wednesday night choir practice became something completely new as the church introduced Festival Choir, a gathering of singing folks for special days in the church calendar who usually do not meet on the traditional Wednesday nights. The look of church leadership changed; there were even MORE women up front than usual. Even the Trustees had to change their regular routines, completely revamping the system of counting offering contributions every week, which had been a long-held and sacred tradition.
These changes, among many others, signified a new day in the life of Calvary Baptist Church…they were practical evidence of radical change, of rebirth. It was time for Calvary to step into a new way of being the church, all within the rich history and tradition of so many who had gone before. But when this was all unfolding, Calvary members were unsure. They couldn’t see the future, and stepping out in faith didn’t seem easy at all. In fact, sometimes being the church was full of pain and uncertainty. It was a big responsibility, that huge legacy.
Not everybody always approved of decisions the congregation made; in fact, very often folks didn’t agree. There was sometimes conflict and misunderstanding. But even in the face of dissention, the congregation persevered, actively forgiving each other, listening to each other, trying to discern the call of God for their church, and staying right in the middle of downtown. The work of God at Calvary was of primary concern for the congregation in those years; it required grace and humility, forgiveness and courage, and the people of God at Calvary Baptist Church in 2012 were up for the challenge.
Well, as you can see, I’m no Olive Tiller, but that’s my first attempt at writing a history for us. The truth is, I don’t know what they’ll say about us 50 years or even 150 years from now. As the family of faith at Calvary Baptist Church, we are still—even after all these years—living between the tension of a long and firmly planted history and the fresh wind of God’s Spirit blowing. It’s a scary place to be, because who knows what might happen next? Today, it’s up to us to decide how our history will be written. Will we choose the radical, risky way of Jesus as those who came before us did?
I don’t know, but here is what I hope:
I hope they say we had the courage, the courage to be reborn into whatever it is God is calling us to do and be on this corner of Washington, DC, in the years ahead of us.
I hope they say we took radical stands on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I hope they say we made room for children and older folks, that we loved and welcomed whomever came through our doors.
I hope they say we worshipped God with commitment and intention, devoting our whole hearts to creating relevant, meaningful, excellent worship.
I hope they say we loved each other, deeply and most commitedly, that we cared for each other in good times and in bad, and that we had a lot of fun together.
I hope they say we worked tirelessly for peace and justice, ushering in the kingdom of God all around us.
I hope they say it was so clear that we believed a new day was coming, for our city and our world, and we wanted to be people who perpetually extended God’s love.
I hope they say all of those things, but I hope they also don’t forget to include some details, like the time the fire alarm went off in the middle of worship, and the day we welcomed a worshipper in full Superman regalia, cape included. You can’t leave those parts out!
In the meantime, it’s up to us to get started living that history right now. Calvary Baptist Church, for the next 50 years and for as long as God calls all of us to live and invest faithfully in this place, may we ride the winds of God’s Spirit and have the courage to be God’s people here. Who knows what they’ll say about us? Knowing all of you, I suspect they will begin writing that history with the quote from the Honorable Charles Evans Hughes, who said: “…I have never seen a church like this!”