New York Avenue Presbyterian, Washington, DC


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: New York Avenue Presbyterian
Location: Washington, DC
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 October 2018, 11:00am

The building

A very classic brick building of a church dating from 1951, replacing an earlier structure put up in 1859 that was itself the successor to older temporary quarters. It is structurally similar to the 1859 building. Eye-pleasing inside and out. The sanctuary lends itself to a mood for worship.

The church

The congregation came into being in 1859 with the merger of two older congregations. This church has an unequaled history in the story of America. Seventeen presidents have worshipped here. Abraham Lincoln attended regularly although he never officially joined the congregation; the Lincoln family pew has been preserved. Lincoln was a tall man, and it is said that he often stood during services while the rest of the congregation remained seated, as his long legs couldn’t quite fit in the cramped space. The Revd Peter Marshall, on whose life the book and motion picture A Man Called Peter was based, was called to be the church’s pastor in 1937 and served as chaplain to the United States Senate from 1947 until his death in 1949. New York Presbyterian Church ministers especially to the homeless via the Radcliffe Room, providing coolness in the summer and warmth in the winter and a place where men and women may socialize – along with restrooms, a clothing exchange, and hot chocolate! They also have an outreach to active military men and women. Their many other ministries and activities are well documented on their website. There are two worship services each Sunday.

The neighborhood

The city of Washington was designed on a basic grid plan of streets criss-crossed by broad avenues that form squares or circles at major intersections; the church dominates the triangular patch formed by the intersection of New York Avenue, H Street and 13th Street. The White House and the Capitol are only a short distance away. Street parking is available for free on Sundays.

The cast

I believe it was the senior pastor who led the liturgy. He was assisted by another gentleman whose title I am not certain of.

What was the name of the service?

Celebration of Worship.

How full was the building?

Attendance was down, I was told, due to neighborhood streets being blocked for some marathon races. I would have guessed it was nearly a third full on the lower level. Among the throng were perhaps ten or more visitors. I was told that the congregation is growing, and judging by the children there I would have to agree. This is always a sign of a healthy church.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Many people greeted me on entering. I haven't been in such a welcoming fellowship in quite a while. Handshakes, and people guiding me to tables set up with coffee, pastries, and fruit.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pew had a padded seat and was very good. The Lincoln pew is smaller that the modern ones that surround it. Except for Lincoln himself, who was 6’4”, we are bigger now than we were 150 years ago.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Very reverent. It was quiet in anticipation of worship. I have to admit I was silenced by the awe of worshipping in this church where giants in American history have trod.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘We have come together to praise God, from whom all blessings flow.’ The pastor also announced that this was his second sermon from Joel.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Presbyterian Hymnal and The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ and piano, both played by the same gentleman, who was very good.

Did anything distract you?

The only possible distraction for me was to let my eyes wander over to the perfect stained glass windows. Also, the moments when I reflected on who had been here before. I know I came for God Almighty, but Lincoln and Peter Marshall can cast a long shadow.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Very quiet, enhanced by the angelic sounds of the small choir. Many people, including myself, waved their bulletins over their heads in appreciation. That was quite a different experience for me – I thought back to sporting events during my college days in Florida, where seniors pounded the bleachers with their canes. There was one candidate for baptism. It was World Communion Day, and so the Sacrament table was covered with different elements from around the world. ‘This is not a Presbyterian table,’ said the pastor, ‘but God’s table, for all of us, a table of grace. So come and take your place at the table.’

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

5 — The pastor spoke clearly and his words were clearly heard, even if I had trouble following his concepts. It was part two of a series.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was Joel 2:28-29 (‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people’). He expressed his belief that all of our current misogyny, homophobia and racism can be traced back to our colonial roots. I admit this and another comment about sin in our soil was hard for me to grasp completely.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The numbers sung by the choir. There were only 14 voices, but it was heavenly. The acoustics were fine as well. The soloist had a marvelous voice, leaving me to wave my bulletin over my head with the others.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The traffic getting in and out of the area of church will test the temper of a saint. Washington is a crazy city and you can expect heavy traffic at any time. As Will Rogers in the 1930s said, 'How can they call it traffic if it doesn't move?'

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I joined a handful of people at the front of the church for a 30 minute tour of the historical property. I saw rooms used by Lincoln and the pulpit used by Peter Marshall. They also have on display a handwritten draft of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the executive order by which Lincoln declared that ‘all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be, free.’

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee from a well known upscale shop, along with pastries and fruit. It was a friendly place to meet and greet. They have so many visitors on Sunday, they know how to welcome worshippers.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 — I would enjoy another visit, just to be blessed by the knowledge of the great saints that knelt there before me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, most certainly. I've come to enjoy a less structured worship, but I knew this was done from their hearts and not for any show. And sitting in the actual pew of Lincoln, where he connected with Our Lord, was a blessing that moved my soul.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The choir and the soloist who joined them for a song will remain with me as a blessing.

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