03 October 2013

For Old Times' Sake

So, for those of you not keeping track, I graduated from The George Washington University in May with a bachelors degree in History. Shortly after, I left Washington, D.C. and have been living at home in California for the last few months.

For those of you who are keeping track, you'll notice that I never completed my goal of visiting every Catholic church in Washington. It's not that I didn't want to, or didn't have any interest in the parishes that remained on my list, but I simply didn't have the time and energy left during my senior year. I was working, participating in student organizations, writing my thesis, passing my classes, and planning my post-grad life. Getting up on Sundays, trekking out to churches across the city and then writing about them just wasn't in the cards.

And though I didn't do what I set out to do, I wouldn't have traded this experience for the world. It started off one day when I was sitting in my dorm room freshman year, looking up Washington D.C.'s churches, when an idea popped into my head. "What if I visited every church in the District and then blogged about it?" And so it began. The powerful thing for me, an 18-year-old kid just coming out of high school, was that it was one of the first large-scale endeavors that I conceived and executed entirely on my own. Watching the process change from "What if..." to "Wow, I'm actually doing this!" was really powerful and has inspired just about everything I've done since.

I learned a lot about Catholicism and a lot about Washington. Before this project, I had never heard of a black Catholic parish. By the end, I had been to half a dozen and had written a research paper on the formation of black Catholic parishes in Washington in the 1920s. I saw a lot of neighborhoods I never would have seen and met a bunch of interesting people. And of course, I made some great friendships with the people I would go to church with: Dan, Loreto, Kate and plenty more.

And so, when I returned to Washington earlier this month, I figured I should give Capitol Catholic its due - one last visit to one of my favorite parishes with one of my favorite churchgoing buddies, Dan. Luckily, Dan lives two blocks from St. Augustine's, one of the first parishes I wrote about and one that I've been back to at least one time since. It's the city's first black Catholic parish, and at 12:30 every Sunday, it holds an outstanding Mass backed by its excellent Gospel choir.

The choir was in fine form this morning, as was Father Pat, who gave a stirring sermon. Father Pat is one of the best homilists I've ever seen. His homilies are both complex, profound, light, and relatable. Whereas most homilists will try to return to one single message, Pat riffs between six or seven, and manages to tie them altogether into a coherent whole. This time he was full of great lines and comparisons, my favorite being his description of God's love for mankind as being similar to a Marvin Gaye song: "I want you, and I want you to want me too."

The most remarkable thing about the Mass, for me, wasn't the great sermon or the always-spot-on choir, but the people in attendance. Washington has always maintained some form of racial segregation in its Catholic parishes. Before and after the Civil War, African-Americans were forced to sit in the rear balconies of white parishes. St. Augustine's was part of a movement on the part of black Catholics to create their own parishes, a movement which would eventually result in a system of dual, overlapping parishes for whites and blacks in the city of Washington.

Which is why it was so interesting to me to see so many white faces in the crowd that day at St. Augustine. Washington is changing. You don't have to be a genius to see the effects that gentrification is having on the city. Neighborhoods are undergoing drastic re-inventions as largely young, white, middle-class people move into areas previously occupied by working-class minorities. St. Augustine's neighborhood, the traditionally African-American U St., is no exception. And so, in the "Mother Church of Black Catholics," there's a growing population of Caucasians. And it's beautiful.

Whether the biracial worship that I saw that Sunday will continue for years into the future is hard to say. But after going to parishes throughout the city which were mostly ethnically homogenous, it was wonderful to see people crossing the line and worshipping with folks with a Catholic tradition other than their own. And maybe in a society where race continues to divide people, perhaps small pockets of shared worship can give way to a recognition of common humanity. Whether it's a sign of progress or not, it was very refreshing to see.

And so, with that, it's time to retire the Capitol Catholic blog. It was a fun ride, but all things come to an end. Thanks for reading, and God bless.


14 October 2012

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church

After several busy weekends, I finally got back to church this weekend, attending Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast Washington. It's one of the churches that I wrote about in my research paper last year on Washington's black Catholic churches, and was founded in 1921 after black members of St. Teresa of Avila parish decided to form their own church.

I had to drag my lazy, out of shape legs up Morris Rd. to get to OLPH, which is located on a big hill with a pretty nice view of the city. The church building, constructed in the 70s, had a very unusual diamond shape. I liked it though, since it allowed the parishioners to sort of sit surrounding the altar as opposed to just having long vertical rows.

The parish serves an interesting contrast to St. Teresa of Avila parish, which is only a few blocks down the road. I've written before about STA (here) and their spirited, emotionally charged service. Our Lady of Perpetual Help had a much more conservative feel; although incorporating the Gospel choir and many of the conventions of traditional African-American worship, there wasn't so much raw emotion and intensity. That isn't to say it wasn't a nice service: they had a twenty person Gospel choir which sounded great and a very talented, multi-tasking piano player. At one point I saw him simultaneously playing the piano, giving hand signals to the choir, standing to see what the priest was doing, and flipping his sheet music at the same time. They closed with a beautiful rendition of "I Have Decided to Make Jesus My Choice."

07 August 2012

Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament

This Sunday, I went to another church on the border of Washington, D.C. and Maryland, but this time on the  Western edge, near Friendship Heights. The neighborhood was really nice and mellow, with a lot of churches along the way.

I could have sworn this Mass started at 11:00, and I arrived, late, from the Metro, at 11:10. However, it turns out I was wrong and the Mass had started at 10:30. I caught the very end of the Mass while standing at the back of the church. I was pretty embarassed, as I stood in the back and watched like a loser. The parish seemed like it was booming, with a Mass full of young families and children. The church building utilized a lot of stone, and looked like it had been constructed fairly recently. Outside was a giant fir tree that I can only imagine is utilized as a Christmas tree.

22 July 2012

Church of the Incarnation

So, as I may or may not have mentioned before, I'm working now towards the end of the Capitol Catholic project. Thanks to my laziness in previous semesters, most of the churches left on my list are pretty hard to get to, either far from Metro stations or in distant parts of the city. Today's church, Incarnation, was no exception.

Incarnation was formed in 1914, one of the original black parishes in the district. It was formed for the rural community of Deanwood and its new church, built in 1959, rests on Eastern Avenue in Northeast DC. Eastern Avenue is the dividing line between the District of Columbia and Maryland, and Incarnation is one of three parishes that lie directly on the border between DC and Maryland. As I walked to church on Eastern, I saw DC license plates on one side of the street and Maryland licenses on the other.

It took me a while to get out to Incarnation, and I ended up showing up to the Mass about half an hour late. I was treated to a nice, mellow Mass, with a few Gospel hymns thrown in by a small ensemble. My favorite was "Oh Lord, I Want You to Help Me," done by the bassist and the pianist.