Columbia Heights church breaches racial barriers with doctrine of faith, acceptance

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Observer Contributor
Feb. 27, 2008

Some people say that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. People divide by religion to worship, and sometimes, within each religion, people divide by race. For many, there is a difference between a white Baptist church and a black one. All Souls Church, a Unitarian Church in Columbia Heights, puts a dent in this perception.

The church is big, but not elaborately decorated. There are no stained-glass windows or statues — only plain white walls.

The members are dressed just as casually. On Sundays, you can find people wearing everything from a Barack Obama sweatshirt to a football jersey to a traditional Indian sari.

Whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos are all members. Couples, both gay and straight, are too. A large amount of children are members as well. The church’s philosophy is in their name — all souls are welcome.

Photo courtesy of ALL SOULS CHURCH.
The Jubilee Singers at All Souls Church perform during a service. The Columbia Heights church prides itself on its diverse congregation, which includes members of different races, ages and lifestyles.

“It’s refreshing and comfortable,” said Adrina Donati, a member of the church.

This level of comfort is often not associated with the neighborhood the church is in: Columbia Heights. Over the 2007 Halloween weekend, ten people were shot; one of the shootings was fatal.

In the last couple of years, the neighborhood has had a major facelift. New businesses, including Target, are set to open, and new apartment complexes are being built.

The neighborhood’s makeover has had a dual effect on All Souls, according to Associate Minister the Rev. Shana Lynngood.

“The good thing about the changing neighborhood is you can go out to a nice brunch after church,” Lynngood said. “But then the drugs and crime have not left the area.”

She said the changes have also increased taxes and rent, forcing many local members to move out of the neighborhood.

To help support the changing neighborhood, All Souls joined the Washington Interfaith Network. Through the network, members interview local residents and ask them about their living conditions, making sure they are receiving adequate services.

This is what attracted Columbia Heights resident Rae Johnson to the church. She enjoys the congregation’s drive for social activism.

“The people who are drawn here are committed to change and support of the lower income,” said Johnson.

Photo courtesy of ALL SOULS CHURCH.
All Souls minister, the Rev. Shana Lynngood, right, said she and the Rev. Rob Hardies face challenges maintaining a full congregation in a neighborhood undergoing many changes, and a culture that no longer assumes church is relevant to everyone’s life.

Since it was built in 1924, the church has been an integral part of Columbia Heights. During the 1960s, the church was one of the few places not vandalized during riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Church leaders said it was All Souls’ dedication to the Civil Rights Movement that left it unharmed. During the civil rights era, an All Souls associate minister, the Rev. James Reeb, was assassinated at a march in Selma, Ala.

Race relations within the church have not always been perfect. In the late 1990s, the congregation voted to dismiss their minister, the Rev. Daniel Webster Aldridge. According to Church history records, some members wanted him gone because of his authoritarian leadership. However, the conflict later turned into a racial issue when some black members asserted that whites wanted the reverend gone because he was black. The confusion caused many members to leave, and membership sank to 200 from a high of more than 1000.

Membership increased after Sept. 11, 2001, but Lynngood says it is still a challenge to get people out to church.

“Honestly, churches are dying in major urban areas,” Lynngood said. “The culture has shifted. People have to feel like it is worth getting out of bed to go to church. It has to be relevant to their lives.”

For member Kathy Olge, it is relevant enough.

“I was looking for a community and a place to share spirituality and found it here,” said Olge.

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