Checking in at the church that welcomes everyone, from true believers to hardcore activists
From the top corner of D.C. to the National Mall, 16th Street cuts a bold line straight down the city’s center, across the chevron of diagonal streets and blooming roundabouts. Traveling south, after you glimpse the lush sprawl of Rock Creek Park in the north—but before you hit the steep terrace of Meridian Hill Park—16th Street whisks you through Columbia Heights.
The speed limit on 16th never exceeds 30 miles per hour, but even if you get stuck at a light, you could easily miss Saint Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church. Housed in a brown brick building for nearly a century, it’s an Episcopal church tucked within a thicket of side streets and row houses. Hang around long enough, and you’ll see a curious mix of people filtering in, from parishioners to hackers, passers by to members of the hardcore punk scene.
Rezene Ghebretensaie has called Columbia Heights home for over 25 years, long before he began zipping around the city as an Uber driver. Since he arrived in the United States from Eritrea in 1986, he has learned D.C. and Columbia Heights inside and out, including 16th Street’s churches.
As Ghebretensaie takes his kids to school and soccer, he marvels at how much safer the neighborhood has grown.
“People call my name when I’m walking down the street,” Ghebretensaie says. “I’m lucky to be living here.”
The neighborhood’s current status as a melting pot of cultures and influences has taken decades to build—and rebuild. At the turn of the 20th century, African American residents developed their own businesses and institutions in Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor, an escape from the indignities of segregation.
As civil rights victories began to provide Columbia Heights residents access to other parts of the city, the neighborhood was dealt a series of heavy blows. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., violent protests devastated local businesses. In the next two decades, the dual forces of white flight and the crack epidemic deprived Columbia Heights of many of the resources necessary to rebuild.
Mark Andersen moved to Columbia Heights in 1984. He was drawn to the nation’s capital from Montana by the opportunity to study international relations at Johns Hopkins.
He remembers his landlady insisting on driving him a few short blocks to the post office out of fear that he would get caught in crossfire.
But Andersen was captivated by the neighborhood’s punk scene. Low rent meant that artists, musicians, and political radicals could take risks. In 1986, Andersen found himself at Saint Stephen’s for a benefit show thrown by activist collective Positive Force.
“Within punk, there’s a very strong radical, secular element and critique of organized religion,” said Andersen, who identifies as a Christian. “Occasionally there have been people who have balked at punk-related events at Saint Stephen’s or other churches, but I think that’s unusual.”
Also unusual has been Saint Stephen’s mission, which has never been to force beliefs onto anyone. Instead, the church operates under the assumption that actions of acceptance, community engagement, and social justice speak louder than any words from a pulpit.
For example, as the demographics of Columbia Heights changed in the 1950s, other congregations fled to the suburbs while Saint Stephen’s became the first integrated Episcopal church in the District. Later, Saint Stephen’s clergy took an enormous risk by ordaining Rev. Alison Cheek, the Episcopal church’s first woman priest. Since then, Saint Stephen’s has been a progressive leader among Christian churches, officiating same sex marriages and offering Spanish masses.
Though rich in history, Columbia Heights' future remains unclear.
In 2004, Andersen helped found We Are Family, an organization that supports D.C.’s low income senior citizens. To get the organization off the ground, D.C. hardcore legend Ian MacKaye and his band The Evens played a benefit at Saint Stephen’s, the equivalent of a royal endorsement in the post-punk scene.
Andersen’s relationship to Saint Stephen’s came full circle in 2009, when We Are Family joined the nearly dozen organizations operating within the church. After Sunday services, congregants sometimes drift into a hall adjacent to the sanctuary for coffee, tea, and snacks while tucked in a second floor gallery are the offices of an array of nonprofits. Sometimes the church transforms into a venue for noisy punk rock.
As director of operations, Mike Ritonia coordinates the symbiotic relationship between these nonprofits and the church. The revenue brought in from renters keeps Saint Stephen’s afloat, and in exchange, the nonprofits are offered steeply discounted rent.
“Other churches on 16th Street are locked up like banks,” said Ritonia, a former AOL executive whose wife’s career as an ordained Episcopal priest originally brought them to D.C. Instead of locking the doors, Saint Stephen’s leaves the church open to all who wish to come inside.
As he manages the various repairs, events, and projects that keep Saint Stephen’s buzzing, Ritonia occasionally hears the sound of piano music and other sounds of visitors drifting up to his office.
“As long as it sounds like they know what they’re doing, I leave them alone,” said Ritonia.
That isn’t to say that Saint Stephen’s radical openness has always been easy. Disrupt J20, a protest group formed to disrupt the 2017 presidential inauguration with acts of resistance, held planning meetings in a space at Saint Stephen’s.
As images of Disrupt J20 members setting fires and smashing windows filled TV screens around the nation, Ritonia and other church leaders agreed that greater scrutiny may be necessary to ensure that groups using the church to organize represent nonviolence.
These days, when Columbia Heights appears in headlines, it’s often alongside words like “hip” and “up-and-coming,” signifiers of gentrification. Though rich in history, its future remains unclear.
“It’s a poignant and pregnant moment,” said Andersen. “We don’t know what’s coming, but we will choose. Let us choose wisely and humanely.”
And for the foreseeable future, Saint Stephen’s will carry on. In the meantime, its website promises: “No matter who you are or what you are, there is room for you here.”
Photos: Shannon Hovick and Jonny Meyer