By Mia Steinle
On a recent Sunday, the service inside St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church looked a lot like the scenes playing out many other places of worship that morning. An attentive congregation watched and listened as a clear-voiced clergyman led them through readings, songs and prayers.
But the Rev. Frank Dunn was urging the group not to be passive, suggesting they act a bit more like shepherds than like sheep.
In doing so, Dunn was reiterating the philosophy that makes St. Stephen’s an inextricable part of Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights’ history and neighborhood life – from the Civil Rights movement to current demographic shifts.
“It’s not your garden variety top-down decision-making organization,” he said.
Rather than entrusting all power to a head clergy person, several clergy people and a committee of laypeople share the responsibilities of leadership and decision-making. This untraditional model is one of the reasons people come back to St. Stephen’s, according to Dunn.
“People do better with a sense of ownership,” Dunn said.
St. Stephen’s was founded in 1925, but its location near the District’s Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods didn’t start to play a big role in the church’s development until the 1950s, according to the church’s Web site. It was then that it became the first integrated Episcopal church in the city. In the 1960s, the church began to tackle civil rights issues.
“When things happen in the neighborhood, the parish tends to respond,” Dunn said. “The neighborhood sometimes writes the church’s agenda.”
It was this sort of community involvement that caught the attention of G.T. Hunt, who has been attending St. Stephen’s for eight years.
Hunt, who has lived in the metro area his whole life, said, “I always heard about it, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. People would say, ‘Meeting at St. Stephen’s.’ ”
Today, Dunn estimates that about 40 percent of the congregation is not white, reflecting the demographic shifts in the area. For example, Caribbean immigrants, who came to D.C. in the 1970s from their local Anglican churches, make up a “small but very significant” section of the congregation.
Since 2006, the church has held a Spanish-language mass – Misa Alegria, or “Joyful Mass” – on Sunday evenings. While many members of the Spanish-language congregation come from outside the neighborhood, Dunn said this mass is one way the church addresses the Latino community in Mt. Pleasant.
Dunn estimates that about 60 percent of its members live more than one mile away from the church. Many of these members had histories in the neighborhood that originally drew them to St. Stephen’s, he said.
Jane Bishop first came to St. Stephen’s in 1975 when she moved to nearby Adam’s Morgan. She moved away from D.C. three years later and returned in 2003. She is now a lay member of the church’s decision-making body.
“I could have chosen any place in the world to live,” she said. “I felt that I had a church community here – perhaps. And I did.”
Bishop now travels a bit farther to get to St. Stephen’s, since she was priced out of the area – a development of the last few decades that influences the church’s demographics, according to Dunn.
Still, the church works to keep housing prices in the area low. St. Stephen’s was involved in the creation of Urban Village, low-priced apartments near the church. While Dunn said he doesn’t like to use the word “gentrification,” he admits the neighborhood is much different from what it was in the 1980s, when a drug shoot-out left someone dead on the church’s front steps.
“The economic rise in the neighborhood has brought in people,” he said, especially socially conscious young people.
One big draw for these new members is the church’s support of progressive local organizations. The church building, which Dunn calls a “community space,” houses offices for over a dozen groups, including those geared toward immigrants, youth, social justice and the homeless.
Their rent contributes between one-third and one-half of the church’s budget, which allows St. Stephen’s to be “economically viable,” according to Dunn. They also help the church in its mission.
“These organizations extend the ministry in ways we couldn’t do ourselves,” Dunn said.
Cam Crockett, a lay leader who has been coming to St. Stephen’s for a total of 15 years, compared the church’s influence to a “bull’s-eye.” At the center are the church and its regular members, and each successive ring is their impact moving out through the community.
“I’ve been moved by the embracing of everyone who comes through the door,” she said. “People seem to find this church and never leave.”