250 Years of Reaching Out in Georgetown
By November 20, 2019 0 769•
Quick — do you know which church is the oldest in Georgetown still performing its pastoral mission full-time on the same property?
It’s Georgetown Lutheran Church, which, as of this year, has been reaching out to diverse parishioners and community members for two and a half centuries. The 250th-anniversary celebration was held on Oct. 20.
Georgetown Lutheran’s first log structure was built in 1769 on the corner of what is now Volta Place and Wisconsin Avenue, then known as Fourth and High Streets. That was just three years after the Old Stone House — the oldest surviving structure on its original foundation in what is now Washington, D.C. — was constructed.
At that time, 21 years before Washington became the capital of the young nation, George Town (two words) was an emerging trading port. In 1829, the Supreme Court confirmed the congregation’s ownership of the land and burying ground.
The grey brick edifice of the present Georgetown Lutheran Church is its fourth building, built in 1914. It includes space for offices and basement rooms for meetings and events — all places where the local Lutherans have fed and sheltered the needy for well over a century. It is the site, as well, of the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts.
But some people know the church as the most picturesque in Georgetown, with its almost storybook-looking bell tower, stained glass windows, arched doors and entrances and flower-filled gardens, with benches and a mini-steeple that houses the church’s original — though cracked — bell.
“Often on a sunny day, I sit on the bench in the garden at the corner to greet people and welcome them to visit our sanctuary,” said full-time Pastor Brett Davis. The smiling and energetic 38-year-old says she finds many people are surprised to see her wearing a clerical Roman collar. “We didn’t know the Catholics had women clerics,” some say.
Davis loves to tell them about the history of the denomination. Martin Luther had been a pious German Catholic who nevertheless ended up breaking off from the Church of Rome in 1517, demanding that it halt the abuse of indulgences. “He was a man of his day, a humanist,” Davis related. “We don’t put him on a pedestal. But he formed a new, very humane church that inspires us to this day.”
Davis was also born Catholic, but her family converted to Lutheranism after moving to Virginia, where she grew up. She points with some awe at the large bible from the 1760s that lies under glass in the back of the sanctuary, next to the church’s original organ. “We’re not sure from what part of Germany the first Lutherans to Georgetown came, by way of Pennsylvania. But this bible, written in Gothic German script, was theirs.”
The church has seen various ups and downs since its founding. “It had a German identification and a German school its first 75 years,” Davis said. After the Civil War, when the sanctuary served as a hospital, it became English-speaking. By the late 1880s, documents show that church parishioners came from eight different countries, including several in Asia. It’s been actively multinational and multicultural ever since.
In 1894, a new, charismatic pastor, the Rev. Stanley Billheimer, encouraged the participation of young men and women in particular and organized the church’s first Sunday school and mission band.
The walls of the entrance hall leading to the sanctuary are filled with dozens of unique crosses, collected from countries around the world and donated over the years by parishioners. They reflect the church’s new life in the second half of the 20th century “as it evolved into a community of outreach, social justice and hospitality,” according to the church history, which continues: “That’s when the church began to see the community and the world outside its doors and welcome people of all ages, backgrounds and experiences.”
“We welcome everyone and want everyone to feel comfortable,” Davis said. “We are not color blind, but we are not color amazed either. We seek a balance.”
The church’s 22nd annual Community Thanksgiving Eve Dinner, a free event open to all, will take place on Wednesday, Nov. 27, at 6 p.m.