Churches Find Role to Play at Intersection of Faith, History

January 23, 2009

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Jan. 23, 2009 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)


Millions felt drawn to the nation's capital for the inauguration of the first U.S. African-American president on Jan. 20, and many arrived with no place to stay, no food, no money and no idea what to do.


If they wandered near one of the 40 United Methodist churches in the Baltimore-Washington area, they found open doors and a place to come in out of the cold.


It was a welcome sight for one woman and her 12-year-old son who used all the money they had to buy roundtrip bus tickets to D.C. from New York. They found a warm shelter at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, just blocks from the National Mall, and volunteers even gave them money to buy souvenirs.


"They left on Wednesday with the two plastic grocery bags they arrived with," said the Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol, pastor at Mount Vernon Place. "People made significant sacrifices to be here this weekend."


Sokol said 20 people were sleeping on the church floors Jan. 19 on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States.


'Witness to our nation'

Through its "Be the Change You Want to See" initiative, the Baltimore-Washington Annual (regional) Conference provided opportunities for people from the D.C. area and throughout the nation to connect at an intersection of faith and events unfolding on the national stage, according to Bishop John Schol.


With an estimated 4 million people in Washington for the inauguration, United Methodists provided hospitality, worship and praise experiences, and service and learning opportunities.


"A new spirit of service and sacrifice is being awakened in our country," Schol said. "The United Methodist Church can offer a witness to our nation at this time and be leaders in the transformation of our world."


Foundry United Methodist Church, a mile north of the White House, had 89 people sleeping on its floors Jan. 17-21.


"We are really not set up for overnight groups, but we decided to make it work," said Kerry Kidwell-Slak, a Foundry member. The church also gave hot cocoa, coffee, bathrooms and a cardboard Obama cutout to visitors (at left, above).


The Jewish Community Center across the street from Foundry shared its showers with the overnight guests, and the congregation donated money to provide meals for the visitors.


"We embraced our United Methodist roots and shared that with congregations and youth groups from around the country," Kidwell-Slak said.


Bonds of brotherhood

Herman L. Fraser, 60, a member of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, N.Y., organized a group of about 20 people who came to D.C. by bus. They made Asbury United Methodist Church their home from 5:30 a.m. until around 5 p.m. on Jan. 20 to watch the inauguration. The downtown church is also near the National Mall and White House.


"They are the warmest people," Fraser said of his new friends at Asbury. "They made us feel welcome, and you could see they meant it from the bottom of their hearts."
(At left, Cassie Hinnen, from New Jersey, sleeps on the floor at Mount Vernon Place UMC in Washington. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.)


The Rev. Deborah Murray, pastor of Waianae United Methodist Church in Hawaii, found a sense of belonging at Mount Vernon Place.


"I've always felt homeless," she confessed to the congregation. "I was hungry for love. I feel so at home with the people of God."


In an expression of gratitude, Murray sang for the congregation. She was accompanied by two members of her congregation who made the trip with her, and a woman she had met the night before in a Fuddruckers Restaurant, a few blocks from Mount Vernon Place.


The woman introduced herself simply as Anya, and shared how "the Holy Spirit can open doors and draw you into God when you least expect it. I'm learning here to trust God and not be ashamed," she said. "I know these big national events are important. But I'm having kind of my own personal inauguration."


During this same worship, a man from Iowa stood and shared similar sentiments. "I have a family here, and I never knew any of you before I arrived," he said. 'It's as if the invisible barriers that divided people in the nation are beginning to fall."


*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Melissa Lauber, editor of UM Connection, the newspaper for the United Methodist Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference, contributed to this story.