CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the location of Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church. The church is located in Washington, D.C.’s southeast quadrant.
The members of a Southeast Washington Presbyterian congregation are praying and keeping the faith even though the leaders of their church voted to close their building, which is in despair and hasn’t been used since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They are trying to take the church because they want to sell our building,” said Carolyn Johns Gray, 81, a longtime member of Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church in Southeast. “We are a mixed racial church. We don’t turn anyone away but they want to sell our building.”
Gray, who joined Garden Memorial in 1989, said Garden Memorial had a strong membership and daycare center but the congregation has dwindled to about 15 members.
In September 2022, National Capital Presbytery (NCP) officials, the governing body of Presbyterian congregations in the Washington area, appointed an Administrative Commission “to assume original jurisdiction and act as the session for Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church to assess the vitality of the congregation.”
However, on June 15, she got a letter from church leaders saying the church would be closing.
”The Administrative Commission held a meeting on June 5, 2023, and – after due deliberation and prayer – the Commission voted to dissolve Garden Memorial Presbyterian Church,” the letter read. “This action was not taken lightly. It comes as the culmination of years of attempts by NCP (National Capital Presbytery) representatives to work on a variety of actions to assist the Church, including paying overdue property taxes, providing representation on specific legal issues, facilitating access to temporary stated supply, and providing advice and counseling on possible initiatives with Church leaders who were willing to engage. “
The Rockville-based NCP explained that for months the Administrative Commission made various efforts to reach out to members of the Church and discern a path forward. These efforts included meetings with congregational members, requests for church records, assessment of church facilities, management of utilities, and termination of a long-standing lease with a for-profit organization.
According to NCP documents, while a few members were willing to engage with the Administrative Commission, others refused to cooperate or to provide the requested records necessary to address the needs of the Church.
In a letter to the NCP, Gray wrote, “I feel that the Presbytery has violated our rights as a congregation.”
“This is habitual behavior and it needs to stop. I am not saying that we are totally clear of being part of the position we are in,” Gray continued. “We should be allowed to tend to our own business without being treated like we are mismanaging our church.”
She explained the congregation was small, but might.
“We are a small congregation with big hearts that manages to keep our church afloat and help in the community. We are a family that believes in the Lord and the directions of the Bible,” Gray wrote to the governing body.
Between a lack of pastor and leadership, previous tax and financial challenges, and loss of heat in the sanctuary and room beneath, which was used for receptions, the church was running into many difficulties.
“We were no longer able to let anyone use the spaces causing a financial loss,” she explained.
More challenges faced the Southeast church, Gray explained.
“The education building began to leak so we could not make use of the Education building. The nursery stopped paying for its space and eventually moved out. We tried a GoFundMe twice to no avail. In trying to find large donors, people could not understand why the Presbytery… could not take care of its own,” Gray shared. “Thus, we ran out of funds to pay bills, which resulted in the church being in disrepair and the taxes not being paid, especially since the nursery was the reason for the taxes and the nursery was not paying. “
Gray said she hoped the Presbyter’s involvement would have kept the church’s doors open, as opposed to the challenges Garden Memorial currently faces.
“I truly think that had the Presbytery helped us with the boiler and honored its contract, we would not be where we are now,” she said. “We never had a chance with the GoFundMe which could have been a success had the public known that we genuinely needed the funds.”
Elder Lou Durden, chair of the Garden Memorial Administrative Commission, addressed rumors that actions were taken and decisions made behind certain church members’ backs.
With the church’s close lingering, Durden said working with the congregation to best provide pastoral care and help with the transition is key.
“We can help identify other churches in the area that might be appropriate for a transfer of membership. We can conduct a respectful celebration of the ministry and mission of Garden Memorial,” he explained. “We can help preserve important historical documents or artifacts of the church. The members of the Administrative Commission are also open to other reasonable actions members might request to ease the transition.”