Spiritual Life on the Hill

At the complex nexus of three Southeast streets – South Carolina, C and 13th – stands a small historical marker that illuminates much of spiritual life in and around Capitol Hill:

“May the memory of St. Cyprian’s history ever remain as a testament to the goodness of the Lord and the living faith of the Black Catholics of Southeast Washington. ‘My dwelling places shall be with them, says the Lord, and I will be their God and they will be my people.’ Ez 37.27”

My husband and I paused to read this marker on one of our earliest strolls here. We talked then, nearly 30 years ago, about the richness and complexities of life that preceded us in the neighborhood, all that we could never know, and all that we had to learn as we made our home here. Over the ensuing decades this marker, and the conversation it first inspired, has been a sort of touchstone for our family’s spiritual travels across the Hill and beyond.

One day, passing the marker, we happened to meet a Jewish neighbor. He pointed out to our children that Ezekiel was the first Hebrew prophet to preach from exile and that these circumstances make the mobility of spiritual “dwelling places” especially poignant.

1983 centennial marker for St. Cyprian Catholic Church, 13th & C Streets, SE. (photo: V. Spatz)

Adapting Dwellings

A Hebrew engraving above the entrance to 471 9th St SE recalls the orthodox Jewish congregation that constructed the building in 1909 while welcoming worshippers to Tried Stone Church of Christ, at home there since 1971. Across 9th Street, the secular Hill Center – which undoubtedly heard its share of prayers when it served as a naval hospital – hosts both Christian Scientist services and Buddhist meditation. A few blocks distant, Capitol Hill Presbyterian hosts Tibetan Buddhist meditation and chanting, with additional practice and study in a private home near Potomac Avenue Metro.

Tried Stone Church on 9th & Pennsylvania displays 10 Commandments in Hebrew, evidence of the buildings construction in 1909 as the Southeast Hebrew Congregation.

On the Waterfront, St. Augustine, which shared space with Temple Micah for 28 years, is currently without a building. Until its new home opens later this year, the Episcopal congregation worships at Christ United Methodist as well as at an Indian restaurant. Meanwhile, Temple Micah, in its own Glover Park building since 1995, maintains membership in the Capitol Hill Group Ministry, and many Micah members who once worshipped in Southwest continue to host Shabbat dinners and Passover seders in their Hill area homes.

Closer to Eastern Market, Hill Havurah, a Jewish fellowship less than 20 years old, regularly meets at both Christ Our Shepherd Church and the Washington City Church of the Brethren, with recent high holiday services at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation. Hill Havurah conducted a water-based holiday ritual at Yards Park, and a “Sukkah Walk,” visiting a series of temporary shelters erected outside Hill homes, for the fall harvest holiday.

Members of Hill Havurah share services and fellowship at Christ Our Shepherds Church. (photo: Hill Havurah)

National Community Church once met at Union Station’s movie theater, now long defunct, and currently extends to eight locations, including one on Barracks Row.

The Hill does not physically house Bahai, Hindu, or Ifa worship communities, although these can be found elsewhere in the District. Masjid Muhammad, not far from Union Station, and America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, just across the river, provide Sunni Muslim worship and learning opportunities. The Nation of Islam’s Mosque #4 is in nearby Hillcrest. Members of all these communities and many more are part of the neighborhood’s shifting spiritual landscape.

Shifting Landscape

The historical marker at 13th & C reminds us that the Hill’s spiritual landscape is shaped by our history of racial segregation, in and outside houses of worship: St. Cyprian Catholic Church was founded in 1893 by Black Catholics who had been sitting in the back of St. Peter’s. Ebenezer United Methodist Church was, per congregational history, “founded in 1827 by blacks who left a biracial church on Capitol Hill because the white congregants practiced segregation.”

A number of Hill churches – Brown Memorial AME, founded 1883, e.g., and Tried Stone Fire Baptized Church, founded 1925 – are part of historically Black denominations. St. Benedict the Moor is one of several Catholic congregations in town associated with the Josephite order, specifically organized to serve African American communities.

In 1966, when St. Cyprian’s building needed expensive repairs, race relations and Hill demographics had changed enough to spur a merging of St. Cyprian with nearby Holy Comforter. Other churches engaged in conscious integration efforts in the mid-20th Century. St. Mark’s Episcopal, for example, developed an arts-based outreach program, fostering one of the District’s first inter-racial dance troupes along the way. Later-forming congregations – the multi-denominational Washington Community Fellowship, founded in 1981, e.g., and the far newer non-denominational Table Church – entered into vastly different Hill landscapes.

Several Hill area congregations now note that they are actively welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ members. Many continually extend ideas of inclusion across the borders of class, language, age, family status, physical disability, and the potential fault lines of “old” and “new” residents. In addition, the range of ways to explore and connect with faith communities on the Hill is always expanding.

Living Faith

The Hill abounds in fellowship opportunities: St. Augustine meets for worship once a month at Masala Art Restaurant, while National Community Church operates its own coffeehouse, Ebenezer’s. St. Mark has a “pub lunch” tradition, and Christ Church has its “brew crew.” Westminster Presbyterian presents community-building Jazz Nights and Blues Mondays. Volunteers and people in need of meals meet three days a week at Washington City Church of the Brethren’s nutrition program. L’Chayim v’Yayin (To Life and Wine) is a community of Jewish adults often meeting around the Hill for a meal, Bible study, and/or wine. The Table Church focuses on food justice as well as an all-church meal.

The Hill offers extensive opportunities to connect with others while putting faith into local action. In addition to efforts centered in individual congregations, Little Lights, founded in 1995, and Capitol Hill Group Ministry, founded in 1967, serve the community in a number of ways. Proximity to official Washington presents another set of opportunities for spiritual connections.

Some Hill houses of worship, like the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, also play active roles in national efforts. They open their doors for action-oriented interfaith services, warming centers during national rallies, and other support efforts. A National Vigil for Victims of Gun Violence, followed by related advocacy days, was hosted by a congregation just steps from the Library of Congress, for example. The William Penn House has provided Quaker hospitality and served as a center for study, prayer, and action for locals and visitors since 1966. The Hill is also home to the historic Methodist Building’s center of faith-oriented work, Church of the Brethren’s Office of Public Witness, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Faith & Action, and other groups that can link locals with national avenues for sharing advocacy and witness.

Spiritual needs shift over lifetimes, and changes in religious affiliation affect many families. Those of us who are transplants to DC continue to feel some connection to another hometown, and, as the Hill transforms under our feet, even long-term residents may feel some level of “exile.” So, that St. Cyprian’s marker resonates more deeply with every passing year: The Hill shares with Ezekiel an awareness that “home” is complicated. We share with the St. Cyprian community the knowledge that our spiritual dwelling places – regardless of traditions we pursue – will always be adapting. And we are reminded of the importance of honoring our predecessors’ living faith while striving to create a Hill spiritual life welcoming to all who remain and to all still to come.

Originally appeared in the 2016 Fagon Guide.

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