In 1853, with the Capitol dome still under construction, 27 persons, with the support of other congregations, committed to the vision of a Presbyterian congregation in what was then called “The Island”—now known as Southwest. From 1853 to the present, the congregation served faithfully in both fat and lean times. The congregation gathered for worship first in a firehouse, then in its first wood-frame structure with a steeple, then in a renovated, stone-covered building with the steeple removed. When Southwest was selected for the country’s first urban renewal project in the late 1950s, a new mid-century modern building was constructed at 4th and I SW in 1965 after which the stone building at 7th and E SW was razed . Due to finances, the new building was only partially completed.
Over 160 years, with its varied church facilities and the spiritual gifts of its members, Westminster has sought to be responsive to community needs. It ministered to children and youth with the Sunday School program, the water sports teams, the children’s film nights, Tiger Drum corps and Plants, Earth and People, and support of local schools. It has worked for justice from early support of the Freedman’s Bureau to leadership in anti-racism and the fight for LGBT justice. It was the first of the Presbytery to hire a woman pastor, the first to have a More Light statement. The first to ordain open lesbian, gay, and transgender elders and deacons. The first to hold a Holy Union. Westminster has had a concern for health and well-being. It founded Food & Friends to provide meals to home-bound persons with AIDS. It founded START at Westminster, a harm reduction program to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and meet people where they are. It hosts 12-step groups and yoga classes and installed a labyrinth as a call to care for our spiritual well-being on the journey. It has been a de facto community center by providing affordable or free space for community meetings, conferences, sleepover space and more. It has supported the arts by housing the SW Opera, providing gallery space, hosting student recitals, special music programs, a culinary program and the phenomenon of Jazz and Blues. It has without fail maintained the practice of Sunday Worship, adhering to reformed tradition while always being open to new and creative ways of praising God who cannot be contained in our "little boxes."
The Capitol city continues to grow and change. Our neighborhood is still in the midst of an unprecedented period of growth that will result in thousands of new residential units, cultural and sport arenas, offices, restaurants, hotels and shops. 4th Street SW will continue to be the Town Center of the neighborhood so Westminster’s location next to the city green space at 4th and I SW make it a prime spot for a continued and strengthened Presbyterian presence in Southwest. The neighborhood has been targeted as a new Arts District in the city and Westminster, with its strong programs of Jazz and Blues, makes it a recognized partner in that vision.
While the world around us changes, the Church also changes. Because of the loss of population and membership following urban renewal, Westminster faced the real possibility of closing or merging in the 1970s and 80s. Instead, the congregation created bold new community-based ministries that had impact far beyond the congregation.
Within the existing 1965 structure, many important physical changes were also made to make the building more flexible—pews were replaced by movable chairs, the heavy communion “altar” was replaced by a light table, the pulpit was taken off the wall and made into a rolling lectern. The choir loft was removed to create more storage. Audio-visual, sound and lighting equipment was added to reach more of our senses in worship and beyond. The labyrinth and stained glass as well as art on the walls brought spiritual richness to the sanctuary space. New musical instruments replaced others for continued evolution and flexibility. A much-needed handicap accessible restroom was created on the sanctuary level though there is still no handicap access to the downstairs. Now we have reached the limits of what we can do in and with our present building.
The Spirit has led us to this new redevelopment partnership so we can stay and grow and also bring desperately needed affordable housing for seniors to Southwest. This is a greater opportunity to serve than we ever imagined. It won't be perfect but it will be good.