Sacred Ground: Celebrating 200 Years at Mount Zion

In front of Mount Zion Church on 29th Street: Barbara Ricks Thompson, who grew up on 26th Street across from Rose Park, Pastor Johnsie Cogman and Khari Eyen Zame Johnson. | Photo by Robert Devaney.

“He is worthy, he is worthy, worthy to be praised.”

The hymn warmed my heart as I walked closer to Mount Zion United Methodist Church on a freezing cold February morning. When I entered the sanctuary, I knew I was in no ordinary church. I was standing on sacred ground.

The architectural design of the oldest African American Methodist church in the nation’s capital was so overwhelming that it became difficult to focus on the hymn. It is clear that Father Time has taken a toll on the halls and the ceiling, but not on the souls of the people. The congregation is a combination of young and elderly. Many of the members are related and their history can be traced back generations — not just to the current building but to the original church their ancestors started in 1816.

Pastor Johnsie Cogman, who came to Mount Zion five years ago, knows all the details of the church’s origins. When she speaks, you can almost see the 120 men and women who grew weary of the racial divide at Montgomery Methodist Church (now called Dumbarton United Methodist Church) 200 years ago.

The vision of their ancestors’ pain is hard to forget, but a moment of reckoning came when Pastor Mary Kay Totty from Dumbarton Methodist arrived at Mount Zion last October. She came to apologize to the descendants of those wronged all those years ago. Pastor Totty presented a crystal dove in remembrance of the past and in hope for their future. Even before the dove’s arrival, the two churches were serving the community together.

There is joy in Cogman’s voice when she talks about the Saturday dinners Mount Zion started providing three years ago. The church collaborates with Dumbarton Methodist and four other churches in Georgetown to feed those in need every Saturday at 5 p.m. The hot meals are served on china with tablecloths and silverware. Those who have fallen on hard times do not drink out of paper cups but sip from glasses.

The coalition of churches will continue to serve the dinners at Jerusalem Baptist until the new kitchen at Mount Zion is completed this summer. This is one of many projects the members are happy to see expand, while celebrating 200 years of love and fellowship.

Cogman and the members are equally excited about the future of Mount Zion after all the fanfare of the anniversary is over.
“We have a lot to be thankful for,” says member and Georgetown native Vernon Ricks. “I was born in Georgetown, but my family was forced out when I was eight years old. My folks could no longer afford to live here when wealthy white families started buying up the area. They bought everything except the churches. By the grace of God we held our ground on the churches.” There is sadness in his voice when he tells the story of walking back from 18th Street to Mount Zion, no matter the weather, every Sunday morning.

Today, there are only a few members who still live in Georgetown. Like Ricks, the families commute to the area they once called home. He has witnessed the church leadership change over and over again. He welcomes the young leaders like Pam Coleman, who has been a member all of her life.

Coleman tells stories about the church, as well as about the cemetery that sits on the hillside a few blocks away, behind Q Street near Rock Creek. Yes, their ancestors are gone on to glory, but their resting place is in despair, like many African American burial grounds around the country. She is sure that one day they will be able to honor their ancestors by repairing these sacred grounds.

Hopeful that people around the country will learn about the Mount Zion she loves so much, Coleman is writing a letter to President Obama and his family to invite them to the final 200th Anniversary service. She wants the president to know their story. There is too much history for Cogman, Coleman or Ricks to remember, as he continues to tell their story.

Mount Zion held a health and wellness fair at the church last Sunday. On the sidewalk you could find the pastor popping popcorn and inviting people to go inside. There are more activities to come, including members participating in the 25th anniversary celebration of the book, “Black Georgetown Remembered,” at Georgetown University Feb. 24. The formal anniversary dinner will be held Sept. 30 with the 200th anniversary Sunday Service Oct. 2.

“Pastor Cogman has a fire inside her that we need at Mount Zion,” Ricks says. It is clear that she is as beloved by the members as the church.

“We are a church that loves God,” says Cogman. “Yes, we have a rich history, but we are moving forward into tomorrow to serve God and this community.”

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