Separated by just 14 city blocks, Mount Moriah Baptist Church and Hill Havurah are still quite distant in some ways. Their interfaith alliance both highlights and attempts to bridge their differences.
Mount Moriah, nearing its 135th anniversary, identifies itself as an African American congregation. The 20-year-old, independent Hill Havurah (“fellowship” in Hebrew), encompasses people of various backgrounds, with a majority, including its rabbi, counted “White” by the Census.
When Rev. Lucius M. Dalton was installed as Mount Moriah’s Senior Pastor 19 years ago, he joined dozens of Christian clergy in 40+ Capitol Hill churches. Mount Moriah, in what is now “Hill East,” remains one of the oldest and more stable, while demographics nearby change. Census figures for neighborhood zip codes flipped, between 2000 and 2018, from majority Black to majority White (see census maps below), and one-bedroom apartments across from Eastern High School — replacing distressed housing and then a long-empty lot — now rent for over $2000/month. Boundaries of “the Hill” have shifted accordingly.
Rabbi Hannah Spiro, hired in 2016, was the first Jewish clergy on the Hill in decades. Prior to formation of the lay-led community, the neighborhood had been without a Jewish congregation for nearly thirty years. Back then, quick sale of Safeway’s Passover goods was one of the few visible hints of Jews in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the area’s Jewish population has grown to third largest in the country (far behind New York; tied with Chicago). More Jews live in the suburbs than in the city itself, and Jews are still a small minority, but DC’s 700,000 residents now include 66,000 Jews.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that church members describe interfaith opportunities as chances to interact with Jews and Judaism, expressing no lack of access to white people, while havurah members stress the opportunity to meet African American neighbors, expressing no lack of access to Christians or Christianity.
Ministering on Two Hills
Hill Havurah is located at 212 East Capitol NE (sharing space with Lutheran Church of the Reformation), near neighbors to Folger Library and the Supreme Court. Mount Moriah is at 1636 East Capitol NE, between Hong Kong’s Carry Out and The Cupboard convenience store, on one side, and Eastern High School on the other, with RFK Stadium nearby.
In addition to the Capital/residential divide, Dalton notes, “there are two different Hills.” He struggles to minister to both: the one with million dollar homes and the one where need outstrips Food Bank supply. Spiro finds these realities are less present in day-to-day havurah operations.
Gun violence, Spiro adds, is another “two Hills” issue: while Dalton is hard-pressed to name a member not directly affected by local gun violence, this is less common in the havurah. Awareness of this disparity prompted an early joint event, “Memorial to Lives Taken by Gun Violence,” in November 2017.
Sarah Erdreich of Hill Havurah remembers the speakers and attempting to explain the gathering to her then-five-year-old child, adding, “what touched me more was writing the names, dates and ages of those lost in the neighborhood on plain white t-shirts.” The opportunity to stand with neighbors in this way prompted her to join a small committee for interfaith planning. Fellow members included Louis Perwien of the havurah and Andrew Hairston of the church.
Hairston remembers the vigil as a point “when we recognized strong parallels between Black and Jewish experience.” He believes the interfaith partnership has “impacted the whole congregation… providing opportunities for folks to exchange thoughts on Torah and Bible and talk about various things that resonate for both communities of faith.”
The alliance began when Spiro, newly arrived, reached out to “as many local clergy as possible,” through a ministry listserv. Dalton was among the few who answered, she says, and they immediately connected over Bible and congregational topics.
Dalton says shared text and history interested him in Spiro’s invitation. While cautioning against comparisons, he says the two congregations share a sense of “the unfortunate demise of millions of kin, the fight for justice and liberation as a people, still fighting for justice….” This sense of connection was new, even after 15 years on the Hill.
“I had never gotten this type of invitation from a white church,” says Dalton. His own invitations, meanwhile, were met with promises that never quite materialized. “I was not being invited to some of the activities on the Hill, because my theology…the theology of African American Christians, did not fit with some of the Baptist churches on Capitol Hill. I can even remember one who said, ‘to come to this meeting you have to agree to a, b, c, d, e, f, and g’ — which was totally opposite with this church’s theology.”
In contrast, says Dalton: “So much of our liberation text comes from the Hebrew Bible…there is so much that we can learn from the Jewish faith,” adding: “Every Baptist pastor needs a rabbi.”
Spiro believes her congregation benefits from the text-centeredness of their Christian neighbor: “They are really serious about learning Bible, and that’s a good influence on us.” In addition, she finds “Progressive Judaism has much to learn from a community accustomed to an abundance of prayer.”
Neighbors in Geography and in Faith
Several havurah members mention the value of connecting with an older congregation, while church members note the importance of connecting with Judaism, the elder in history. Members of both congregations stress taking time to listen and learn across difference and note long-term effects, beyond specific events. Erdreich called it “broadening our sense of community with neighbors in geography and in faith.”
“There’s something to be said for people, not necessarily the leaders, but members of different congregations working together,” says Perwien. “Four people meeting will not by itself change the tenor of race relationships on Capitol Hill, but the opportunity for deeper relationships is important — often we have parallel universes in DC.”
In addition to the memorial, there have been a “song swap,” seasonal biblical studies, Juneteenth and winter holiday gatherings, an interfaith Friday night service, and, most recently, Israel-focused educational programs.
The service, co-led by Dalton and Spiro, followed the outline of a Sabbath-welcoming Jewish service, interspersed with “Go Down Moses” and “Amazing Grace,” led by Cynthia Middleton of the Mount Moriah choir. In place of a sermon, Rabbi Hannah opened discussion on the experience of joint prayer: How did Christians feel about not praying the name of Jesus, for example, and how did Jews feel about the changes in the service?
One participant called out: “I’m new here and disappointed to learn it isn’t always like this.”
Virginia Avniel Spatz is an original and recently returned member of Hill Havurah and a long-time neighbor of Mount Moriah. She and her husband have lived for 30+ years and raised two children in what is now “Hill East.” Jewish writings at Song Every Day.