A match made in Washington


THIRD BAPTIST CHURCH, one of the oldest African American churches in Washington, D.C., sits at the corner of Fifth and Q Streets. Constructed in 1893 by the city’s first black architect, Calvin T.S. Brent, the church boasts a red-brick façade, a high tower, and a series of stained-glass windows. One large front window ushers light into a red-carpeted sanctuary outfitted with wooden pews and a now silent organ that once pumped sacred music up through the balcony and vaulted ceiling.

Although Third Baptist appears on the National Register of Historic Places, its brick edifice recently came near being torn down. That is, until another congregation and a D.C. nonprofit helped save it.

Curtis Smith, Third Baptist’s administrator and deacon ministry chairman, grew up across the street. His family and neighbors attended worship services, community meetings, and other activities at the church. Smith, who turns 75 this year, landed his first-ever job cleaning the church, earning 25 cents for five hours of sweeping floors, dusting seats, and vacuuming. In the church’s heyday, he said, if you didn’t arrive a half-hour ahead of time on Sundays, you’d have to listen to the service while sitting downstairs in the fellowship hall.

But over the years, attendance dwindled. By 2015, the neighborhood had gentrified, and Third Baptist’s building was showing its age. After looking through the “ins-and-outs of the finances,” Smith said, he and other church leaders made the difficult decision to look for a new building that was less expensive to maintain.

Since 2008, the District of Columbia has lost a third of its churches and other houses of worship. Many have fallen victim to real estate developers who demolished them and built other structures, such as condos, in their place.

Church of the Advent hosts an open house in the Third Baptist building.
Photo courtesy of Church of the Advent

Evan Sparks is a board member with the D.C.-based nonprofit Sacred Spaces Conservancy, which has tracked church closures in the nation’s capital. Sparks says a church looking to sell its property can easily find developers seeking to put a profitable housing project in its place. His organization was launched to help match churches with other congregations willing to buy their buildings, so that churches continue to populate the capital.

Third Baptist’s congregation found that many of its prospective buyers were real estate developers who wanted to tear the place down and put up apartments or condos. The church didn’t want to see the building destroyed, although it did entertain some developers’ offers in hopes of a deal. None came to fruition.

But Sacred Spaces knew of a congregation in search of a building like Third Baptist’s. Church of the Advent, an Anglican congregation native to D.C., began working with Sacred Spaces in 2018 as it searched for a building. Rector Thomas Hinson said Advent began meeting in a living room in 2007 and later rented from a variety of sites.

Hinson described the Third Baptist Church building as a perfect fit because of its central location for many of Advent’s members, and because its majestic architecture helped evoke “a sense of connection with the divine.”

Smith, too, was excited at the prospect. He called Advent a “godsend.”

“We said, ‘OK. All the lawyers are gone. All the real estate guys? Gone. Let us just talk,” Smith recalled.

They did talk, and became friends in the process. Hinson took several others from Advent to visit the historic church, and he recalls the warm reception they felt from Third Baptist: When the Advent attendees arrived for their visit, they found Smith had put up a special sign for them.

“Welcome home,” it said.

Third Baptist’s congregation found that many of its prospective buyers were real estate developers who wanted to tear the place down and put up apartments or condos.

Advent ultimately agreed to buy the building for $3.9 million, a sale that would allow Third Baptist’s congregation to move elsewhere, while providing Advent with a location suited to its needs. Leaders of the two churches finalized the deal this past January, meeting in an attorney’s office where they also prayed together.

The sale means one more D.C. church building will live to see another Easter. Advent hopes to move into its new place at Fifth and Q sometime next year, after completing a few necessary renovations. The congregation of Third Baptist, meanwhile, has found a new location in nearby Forest Heights, Md., where it will be closer to many of its members and have 7.2 acres of property to benefit the local community.

Hinson recognizes Third Baptist’s historic significance in the nation’s capital and said he wants to erect a memorial in the first-floor fellowship hall to honor the church’s legacy.

Selling and leaving the church he’d grown up in was a “very tough decision,” Smith admitted. But knowing who the buyer was made it easier.

“We were actually blessed to have them come in to buy our place,” Smith said, “because then we knew it was gonna be used for the purpose in which it was built.”

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