Archive for Saturday, May 4, 2002

Pastor works to rebuild D.C.’s oldest Baptist congregation

May 4, 2002

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— When Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School there, First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., wasn't just a house of worship. It was a tourist attraction.

Secret Service agents guarded the sanctuary. Bomb-sniffing dogs checked the pews. Television camera crews staked out the entrances. Sight-seers jostled for seats.

Today, the president is gone, and most of the pews are empty, but a Georgetown College graduate is working to rebuild the capital city's oldest Baptist congregation.

James Green Somerville, 43, wants to help the 1,200-seat church "grow healthy and strong again, help it face the future and help it live up to its great name.

"It's the biggest job I've ever had," he said.

First Baptist Church celebrated its bicentennial in April. In the 1950s, the church had 3,000 people on its membership rolls. But attendance began to dwindle as members moved to the suburbs, died or dropped out. Attendance picked up briefly when President Carter arrived, but the gains didn't last.

When Somerville became pastor two years ago, average attendance had fallen to 135. Today, after decades of decline, it has climbed to about 200.

Somerville is targeting the 10,000 people who live within a half-mile of First Baptist, people who can walk to the building. The church also is reaching out to young professionals who live in nearby DuPont Circle.

Church members seem happy with Somerville's energy and enthusiasm.

"This was a dying congregation, and now there are young people coming. It's just super," said Gini Nelson, 57, of Arlington, Va.

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