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Church, seminary forge urban ministry partnership

United Methodist Bishop John R. Schol (with scissors) cuts the ribbon to open a
new facility for urban ministry to be shared between Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington. From left are: Donald Graham, the Rev. David M. Wilson, Bishop John Innis, Schol, the Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol and the Rev. David Argo. UMNS photos by John Coleman.

By John Coleman*
Nov. 12, 2009 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church and Wesley Theological Seminary are coming together in search of new approaches to urban ministry in the nation’s capital.

The historic church and seminary dedicated their new shared facility, adjacent to the downtown church, following Sunday morning worship on Oct. 25. Two days later, Wesley Seminary held a full-day symposium on urban ministry as its first major event there.

Wesley Urban Ministry Fellows
discuss plans following a symposium
on new approaches to urban ministry
in Washington. From left are: Easten
Law, Christine Piggee, TyRissa
Turner and Rashida Walker. 


“Since its founding 50 years ago, Wesley Seminary has wanted a presence in downtown Washington,” said the Rev. Fred Smith, director of Wesley’s Urban Ministry program. “We’ve needed a place where we could address urban issues and teach urban ministry right in the heart of the city.”

That place is now in a 12-story, modern edifice with a glass exterior that clings closely to the church’s contrasting marble walls. It contains 31,500 square feet of classrooms, offices, meeting rooms, a kitchen and fellowship hall, retail space and parking decks.

Smith preached at Mount Vernon Place for the building dedication and also convened the Oct. 27 symposium. Titled “Called to the City: Urban Ministry in the Joshua Generation,” the event drew nearly 300 clergy and lay participants. Many of them came with questions and ideas from their various churches and community programs that address poverty, homelessness, education, violence, economic development and other urban concerns.

Mount Vernon Place Church, a white-columned temple built in 1917 and now located next to the city’s convention center, is rebounding after years of membership and financial decline. The once vibrant congregation sold its two adjoining, underused education buildings to a commercial developer in 2005. The decision enabled the church to renovate and restore its decaying sanctuary and main building. That work was completed in 2008.

The developer demolished the aged education buildings and constructed the new facility in partnership with Mount Vernon Place and Wesley Seminary, which needed downtown space for its Urban Ministry and Public Theology programs. The school’s main campus is in northwest Washington, next to United Methodist-related American University.

The church and the seminary will use the building for offices, classes, various ministries and special events. In addition, the seminary will have use of the church sanctuary. Wesley also occupies office and classroom space at nearby Asbury United Methodist Church, also a member of the church-seminary partnership.

Seventeen Wesley students moved into dorm-style rooms and efficiency apartments on the building’s third floor in October. They will live, study and engage in ministry together as part of the seminary’s new “intentional Christian community” initiative. Several have already joined Mt. Vernon Place and become active in its ministries.

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The Urban Ministry program has launched two other initiatives from its new home: the Urban Fellows program and the Urban Center for Community Transformation. The first cohort of six Urban Fellows will take courses, attend events like the “Called to the City” symposium and engage in research and hands-on ministry together in church and community settings across the city.

The Urban Center for Community Transformation will provide interactive learning experiences for students, faculty, community leaders and urban activists, as they explore and develop new strategies for transforming Washington’s political, social and economic landscape, according to Smith. He hopes many of the symposium’s two dozen speakers and workshop leaders who are not part of Wesley will become partners of the new center, collaborating on ideas, research and learning opportunities for Wesley students.

Smith also is exploring possibilities of locating similar centers in other cities, such as Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., Pittsburgh and Syracuse, N.Y. These centers would engage local urban ministry students in supervised research, distance learning and short, intensive classroom courses, he explained.

*Coleman is a freelance writer based in the Washington area.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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