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In Which A Presbyterian Congregation In Southwest D.C.
Finds Soul And A Fractured Community Feels The spirit

By Marc Fisher

Sunday, February 13, 2000; Page W08

    What church is, is a building.
    Earl Banks walks through Westminster Presbyterian in Southwest Washington, a black man in a white church, silently shaking hands in a room filled with people who do not belong to this congregation, yet consider it very much their own. There's a jazz band cutting loose on the altar, fish frying downstairs, sweet potato pie available in the back.
    Every Friday night, in a neighborhood that is a symbol of anonymity, a reborn community gathers at this sacred place.
    What church is, is an event. The people who come to this small, struggling congregation on Jazz Night make the journey neither to speak to nor to honor God. If you ask them, most will say it doesn't matter that they are sitting in a church; they're just here for the music. Some of those who visit Westminster on Jazz Night belong to churches of their own, but they keep faith here, too -- not because of the building or the minister, but because of the friends they've found and the stories they tell and the memories they resurrect.
    What church is, the Rev. Brian Hamilton has discovered, is what happens at Westminster on Friday night, something that does not happen as often or as movingly on Sunday morning. Brian and his wife, Ruth, Westminster's co-pastors, consider this the height of church, as true an expression of worship as they have seen.
    It was not inevitable that Westminster would embrace jazz; Presbyterians are grounded in the austerity of the Scottish tradition. Besides, plenty of churches consider jazz low and of the streets. But Westminster is a mostly white church in a mostly black neighborhood, and its members had always felt odd about that. Over the last two decades, its version of diversity had been to welcome homosexuals to what had previously been a place for straight WASPs. The intention behind Jazz Night was to bridge an even wider divide: Could Westminster connect with the people who actually live in the neighborhood?
    When someone suggested turning the church into a jazz club one night a week, there were those among the faithful who had their doubts. Some members said they just didn't like jazz. Some wondered whether the people who came for the music could ever really feel at home in a Presbyterian church. Church, after all, thrives when people are comfortable; people like to be with those who are like them.
    But comfort has never been what Westminster was about. Church, some in the congregation say, should be a home for people who've been left out. And so there are tensions at Westminster. Is that what church is? Church, in this quiet, pedestrian-free corner of SouthwestWashington, is a small, white, cold building of that 1960s modernist style that valued starkness and clean lines over even the slightest ornamentation. If there is ecstasy or agony to be expressed here, it will have to be born of the soul, not the senses.
    Old, beloved churches were bulldozed in Southwest, along with houses and memories, because the federal government had a boatload of money and the bureaucrats had fixated on an idea: that you could tear down a decrepit community and build a new one, and it would be better. Urban renewal, they called it. Negro removal, the residents of Southwest called it. Whatever. The feds were in charge, the old buildings came down and the new ones went up, including Westminster Presbyterian.
    Westminster's members had, like most of Southwest's residents, scattered to other parts of the District, or to Maryland or Virginia. When the construction was over and they were invited to return, only a few dozen did. The church was on life support for many years, sharing a pastor, taken over by the denomination's regional governing body, the presbytery.
    Church is something desperately needed in a place that, as even its fiercest advocates readily concede, has no soul. Southwest is cut off from the rest of the city by a freeway and the river, severed from its history by a botched 1960s experiment, largely forgotten by all but those who call it home and tourists in search of a seafood dinner. In its architecture, demographics, economy and heart, it is alone, invisible.
    "You can walk down the street here at 8 o'clock at night and you don't meet a single person." Brian Hamilton, sociologist turned minister, Maine native, veteran of inner-city churches in Philadelphia and Detroit; dreamer, glassworker, believer in the redemptive and uniting power of Jesus, tolerance and jazz. "We live in a world where people don't come out. We don't really live together anymore."
    How do you bring people together? "All churches have to deal with this problem," Hamilton says. Could music be an answer? Something from beyond the hymnal? There'd be nothing revolutionary about that. From Bach's wonders for the German church to the spirituals that animated the faith of American slaves, music and religion have always shared space. But in many churches, there is a right music and a wrong music, one presumed pleasing to God and one deemed blasphemous.
    Music defines a church every bit as much as does the flavor of the people who sit in the pews.
    Goodness knows Westminster needed something after Southwest's reconstruction. By the time Jeanne MacKenzie arrived as pastor, in 1979, the church was down to about a dozen Sunday worshipers. "It was really untenable," MacKenzie recalls.
    She set about rebuilding the congregation on the theory that it must reach out to Southwest's residents, most of whom are black. The church would welcome anyone, both because that was the right thing to do and because beggars can't be choosers. (Even now, the Presbyterian Church nationwide is 94 percent white.) Westminster rebuilt from scratch, even inviting neighborhood grade-schoolers in for lunch, hoping that they would stick around as they grew up and perhaps bring their parents by from time to time. (A couple of those kids are now adult members of the church.) And Westminster opened its meeting rooms to outside groups, including Presbyterians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns. After all, the Presbyterian Church had decided back in 1978 that it "must turn from its fear and hatred to move toward the homosexual community in love." MacKenzie embraced that statement, and when she proposed that Westminster join the More Light movement, a group of Presbyterian churches nationwide that were willing to go beyond church rules and invite homosexuals to be elders and even to marry, most of her members went along. A handful objected, MacKenzie says, but "no one left."
    "The church was small enough that they knew we needed changes," the pastor emeritus recalls. "And they liked the people coming in, so they supported the openness." Gay people who wanted to worship but didn't want to segregate themselves in an overtly gay church, such as Metropolitan Community Church, heard about Westminster. Then came AIDS, and Westminster members started Food and Friends, a program that to this day delivers meals and other support to the ailing. By the mid-'80s, Westminster, which advertised equally in the neighborhood and in the Washington Blade, the city's gay weekly, had reached a balance of sorts -- one-third gay, one-third straight black, one-third straight white. Then someone from outside the congregation complained to the presbytery that a same-sex union had been performed at Westminster. The governing body began an investigation, but dropped it when the complainant declined to pursue the matter.
    Over the years, the national church made its stance on gays more explicit: In 1991, it forbade the use of its facilities or ministers for same-sex unions, and in 1997, its constitution was amended to ban homosexuals from becoming ministers or elders.
    But plenty of winking goes on around those rules. Today, about 60 percent of Westminster's members are gay, and Teri Thomas, the governing Presbyterian officer for the Washington region, openly admires what's happening at Westminster, even if seven of the church's nine elders are gay. Thomas also believes that Westminster's dedication to building a bridge across the racial divide is courageous. She even takes her son to Jazz Night there. But she is also clear about the roots of Jazz Night, clearer even than some of Westminster's members:
    "One of the reasons they are willing to deal with the racial issue there is they just didn't want to face the question of, 'Is this becoming a gay church?' The easy road would have been to become a gay church, but there's real resistance to that -- more so from the gay members. They don't want to be known as a gay church. They don't want to be known as a straight church, or a white church or a black church. So they have taken on racial issues, and the tough ones -- worship and music, the fight between traditional and new music, between the African and European traditions. This is not the easy path, either. It gets real dicey."
    "Why do African American people seem fearful of homosexuality?" Georgeann Wilcoxson stretches her arms across the pale, smooth wood of a Westminster pew. On a sunny winter Sunday, light drenches the sanctuary, pouring in from the windows near the ceiling, bathing the white walls. Wilcoxson minces no words. She is 60, white-haired and strong, an elder at Westminster, a consultant who first came to the church to advise it on management, and a lesbian who has no desire to devote her spirit to an exclusively gay church.
    Wilcoxson, who is white, has an answer for her own question. "Because they don't want to be compared as minorities. People cannot see you are lesbian, so they assume you had a choice." But you "can't choose to be black or not. It's a vicious cycle of misunderstandings, and it's fed by ignorance. If you don't know people, you are free to make assumptions about them."
    Wilcoxson knows plenty of gay people who prefer a gay church, a place where they need not explain themselves, where no one will make assumptions about them. But that's not her way. She bought a house in Southwest because of the aspirations that guided the destruction of the old neighborhood and the construction of the new -- the idea that you could build pricey apartments next to public housing, you could have whites and blacks living in the same area, and you could rely on people to build community.
    Not that it has particularly worked out that way. "It's an eternal process," she says, and the same goes for Westminster. "The church has many expressions. We know everybody doesn't fit in the Presbyterian Church, because that appeals mostly to Europeans, and particularly Scots. But we live in a post-denominational age." Wilcoxson knows that by being here, and by telling her friends about a church that is friendly toward gays, she helps Westminster become more of a gay church. It is a Catch-22, she knows, and she has tried to change it. Tried and tried.
    So even if jazz doesn't speak to Wilcoxson -- "the music really isn't very appealing to me" -- she shows up at Jazz Night, if only to help cook the fish or serve the slaw. "It gives many of us who are gay or lesbian a way to get to know other people," she says.
    "The hardest thing is attracting heterosexual people, especially African Americans," Wilcoxson says. "And sometimes we make it harder by not being as supportive as we should be. We have one heterosexual member who had a relative who was shot, and we failed to show the attention and care we should have, and this member told us we had failed her, and one of the more militant of our gay men said to her, 'You're homophobic.' " "He said, 'My dear, you're homophobic.' " Lou Taylor laughs. She's in her living room, surrounded by her African sculptures and tapestries and paintings, a book of Nikki Giovanni poetry on the coffee table, a breakfront filled to the edges with notes and cards from fellow Westminster members. She can see just a bit of the church from her window, which offers a spectacular view of Southwest and beyond, even to the Capitol. On a table in the living room, a button says, "Wearing Buttons Is Not Enough."
    The discussion that dead-ended with an epithet had started with plain talk about crime and race and what church should be. Taylor had nothing against gays, but she worried about the church becoming so gay that it might no longer be comfortable for others. "What I'd said was that when we have young people coming to church, particularly young black males, we should have strong male role models for them to see. Black male struggles are difficult enough. And this man called me homophobic. If that's what it is, so be it."
    Taylor, who runs the national foundation of the black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, came to Washington in 1972 to work at HUD, and she came to Southwest because it was nearby, and she came to Westminster because when she called the presbytery and asked if there was a church in her new neighborhood, the person on the other end recommended that she look out her window.
    As for why she has stayed, that's more difficult to explain. She grew up in New Jersey, in the Presbyterian Church, and when she came to Washington, she considered looking for a black church, but Westminster was convenient and small and friendly. She has had numerous occasions to reconsider -- "Not because of my blackness, but because of my sexuality. At times, I've thought I was out of place because I'm not gay. The assumption was, 'Well, she must be lesbian if she stays here.' " Taylor says some blacks have left Westminster because the homosexuality there was "in your face." And she suspects that the church's tradition of bringing in the Jefferson Junior High School choir to sing once each year died because some gay members weren't interested in hearing a black choir. "They thought of it as their Sunday off," she says.
    But Taylor has stayed, because the new pastors, Ruth and Brian Hamilton, are dedicated to reaching out to Southwest's blacks, and because this is her church, and because, whatever their differences, she and the others at Westminster are some kind of family. Taylor was in the hospital a few days before this, and the phone rings every five minutes with another friend from church asking if it would be all right to bring over some food. She fetches the card that Georgeann Wilcoxson sent her: "Dear Lou, Though we do not spend much time together, we are together, very close, as we live lives of common commitment and understanding of life. With love . . ." Taylor holds the card as she might a letter from her own child. She reads it again and folds it with care. She stays at Westminster because of that, and because there is work to be done. She lived for many years in New York, where she often attended jazz vespers services, and she admired the Rev. John Gensel, the Night Shepherd -- legendary pastor to New York City's jazz musicians, a Lutheran minister who spent his wee hours at the clubs and in the alleys, counseling the lonely, the strung-out, the lost.
    In Washington, Westminster was her spiritual base, but Taylor still wondered. She'd travel around town, to jazz vespers services at other churches, and she'd feel a spirit there that was missing back home in Southwest. And then came the Hamiltons three years ago, so eager to demonstrate that Westminster was serious about reaching out to black Southwest. Taylor decided to see if Westminster might be ready to diversify in a new way. She knew Earl Banks and Dick Smith, two men who lived jazz, men who'd been searching the city for a place where struggling musicians could play on a regular basis, a place where there would be no $30 cover charge, no two-drink minimum. Taylor arranged a meeting.
    Time was when Earl Banks played drums; for a time, he sang, too. But mostly he drove a cab to put food on the table. And always, he kept a mental catalogue of the Washingtonians who might be working the hack lines and the restaurant kitchens and the mail rooms but whose real love was jazz. The very top of the line left town, finding their way to New York or roaming the country, playing clubs and parties for swells. But most of the others -- the very good and even the great players who didn't want that road life -- stayed here. They played socialites' parties and ritzy weddings out in Middleburg or over in Georgetown, or they found hotel gigs backing up a visiting star, but over the years, jazz was shunted to a corner, and the clubs closed, and there were livings to be made, babies to feed. So Washington's jazz people led their lives mostly apart from one another. When they began to die, Earl Banks kept a careful record of who was gone and who was still here. Banks and his friend Dick Smith -- a former Redskins halfback whose rich, powerful voice is a regular at jazz vespers services around the city -- went to so many funerals. At too many of them, they were the only musicians who knew to come. So, more than a decade ago, Banks started the tributes. Jam sessions, concerts -- Banks called them "Memories of You," a chance for the city's aging jazzmen and -women to come together, to cry at the passing of one of their own and to play again like it was 1954, like it mattered, like how you blew your horn might determine which lady's eye turned your way, or which of the guys would raise a glass to you and maybe invite you along on his next gig. Banks, 72, is a wide, slightly stooped man with a thin mustache and long white sideburns. He is quick to tell about his opera singer son, and his two teacher sons and his truck driver son, and his mentor in the Washington jazz world, Tony Taylor, who had considerable success in the 1970s with Lettumplay, an organization devoted to finding outlets for the city's underemployed jazzmen. When Taylor died, in 1981, Banks took over the mission, but aside from his occasional memorial concerts and an annual King Day event at Howard University, there was precious little to offer the musicians.
    In 1996, the District's financial control board stopped the city from giving Banks's group free access to a recreation center in Northeast. After that, Lettumplay was hardly letting anyone play. But Banks never gave up: "If I'm told I have six months to live, let me hear Trane, let me hear Monk," he says. "This music has to be heard. You go to Georgetown and see that guy with a saxophone on the corner, or Union Station and there's that guy with the trombone, and they're begging for quarters. And those guys can play -- not just in some junkyard band, but play.
    "But where do they go? The churches have been so unfair and unjust to jazz musicians. If you come into a church and say you're going to play Bach, they embrace you. But if you say you play jazz, they say, 'Oh no, not that drunken crazy stuff.' If you want to ask for trouble in a black church, ask two questions: Can I see your financial reports? And: Can I bring jazz in the church?"
    So when he met Brian Hamilton, Banks was suspicious of cutting a deal with a church. From the start, he peppered Hamilton with questions. They talked for hours about motives, about who'd be in charge, about money. To Banks's surprise, they agreed on just about everything. Jazz Night started in January 1999 as an eight-week experiment. The musicians would get the money from the gate. For now, Banks and Dick Smith get nothing -- a situation the pastor would like to change. "Our wives think we're just retarded," Banks says. " 'What, you don't get no money? What are you, crazy?' "
    There have been arguments -- Banks wants to get his players more than the $75 each now gets for the three-hour gig -- but Jazz Night has established itself. It could go on for another year just with the artists already on the waiting list. Through the first year, the price at the door has remained $5, kids free, and if you don't have the five, no one will bar your way. And the menu is cheap. The food -- fried whiting, chicken, slaw, big brownies and sweet potato pie -- comes from a catering business the Hamiltons are setting up as part of a development initiative for low-income residents of Southwest.
    Banks is no Presbyterian -- never will be -- but he believes that Westminster has done something for the city's jazz people. "Rev. Brian is different, he's one in a million. I do not go to church anymore, but I believe God is still in charge, and here, in this church, Rev. Brian brings you right to God. Rev. Brian brings in the music."
    The audiences love it; but Banks knew that would happen. What's remarkable to him is how the players have taken to Jazz Night. "It's about something more than the money; you got to love each other. It's hard for some of these guys, some of them need this $75 bad. Not everybody is Wynton Marsalis, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He didn't have holes in his shoes, didn't have to eat bologna sandwiches. We have guys like Butch Warren. This guy, you go out and buy 20 records from the '40s and '50s and he'll be on seven of them. And then he had some troubles. But let me tell you: It's an honor to be in the same house as him."
    Wherever he stands onstage, front and center or tucked in a back corner, Butch Warren, the bass man, is where your eyes go. He stands erect, his face nearly frozen, his gaze somewhere far. His suits are old, his ties and lapels narrow, and everything is just right. He is very, very cool, even in a little church in an out-of-the-way neighborhood on a cold Friday night in front of 80 people.
    Very few in this crowd know who he really is. Perhaps they would be shocked to learn that Butch Warren played on some of the greatest recordings of American music ever made. He was Thelonius Monk's bass man, and Donald Byrd's, and Joe Henderson's and Herbie Hancock's and Dexter Gordon's. He was the house bassist for Blue Note records in the early '60s. If you listen well, you can pick him out for the way his bass walks a line, the accents he slips in, sometimes daring, sometimes revelatory. When he plays, a mediocre group suddenly sounds like the real thing.
    And here he is at Westminster. Some of the guys figure it's just a little church thing, so they wear whatever's handy, but Warren is always proper -- white shirt, dark suit. A jazzman respecting the art.
    Warren's been back in D.C. for 35 years now. He had troubles in New York that ended his career there -- substance problems, his friends say; illness, the newspapers said. Warren won't say. For a time, he played on a daily TV show in Washington, a ladies' talk program called "Today With Inga," but that was in 1965. After that, you could find him sometimes at the old Embers on Connecticut Avenue or at One Step Down, but he had no steady work. He will allow that Jazz Night at Westminster is a godsend. "We're getting old," he says. "So it's nice, nice seeing these guys. I'll come anytime they call me. It's a chance to play and make a little money, too. See, most of those guys have day jobs. I always managed to get by without doing that."
    He is 60 now, and his only regular gig isn't regular at all, just substitute work at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore. And then he's at Westminster: In the crowd, heads begin to nod, and the other musicians try to top one another, and the solos get more creative, a little louder, a little more emotional. In the center of it all, Butch Warren looks straight into the far. His church is Mount Zion United Methodist in Georgetown. Once in a while, he'll bring a trio there to play. But he'd come to Westminster, to Southwest, all the time if they'd have him. To see the guys. To play. And because, he says, "it's some kind of spiritual."
    In the old Southwest, when Jim Crow ruled, there were restaurants and clubs where whites went, grand old traditions such as Harrigan's and the Marketplace, and there were places for blacks, mostly on Fourth Street, which for most of the century was known as 41/2 Street. In the old Southwest, jazz was the thing, and every time the train passed by, they had to stop the music.
    Joe Jackson played those places, the Star Dust Inn and Bruce Wahl's especially, as well as the clubs up Seventh Street NW and along U Street NW and out Bladensburg Road NE. It was the '50s, and James Brown would play D.C., as would Big Joe Turner and Louis Jordan, Fats Domino and Ray Charles. Blues, R&B, jazz. Jackson, a drummer, played with Frank Wess, Ahmad Jamal, Frank Foster -- big names in jazz. He lived on NoDoz, traveling, pulling in $125 a night but spending most of it on the road. Jackson's band, the Diplomats, is still around, even if he is 73, even if there aren't many jobs, nor many places to play.
    Jackson -- wrinkled, gaunt, yet still a dynamo with drumsticks -- left the road years ago. He spent 25 years as a mail clerk at Walter Reed Army Hospital before retiring, and his main musical gig until last year was the gospel choir at St. Anthony's Church in Northeast. But that wasn't enough: After a life spent on crowded trains and buses, surrounded by strangers' faces, he craved a place to tell stories, a place where memories could be rekindled.
    His best memories are of those Southwest clubs, the ones near his boyhood home in the row houses of Union Street, a place he cannot find now, the neighborhood wiped out by redevelopment. Jackson never expected much from the city he grew up in. When he was 12 or 13, he and his friends would spend Fridays and Saturdays shining shoes at 13th and H streets NW to make the 75 cents they each needed to get into the Howard Theater to hear Stan Kenton or Lionel Hampton.
    "The police would come over and say, 'Didn't I tell you to get out of here?' And they'd take my shoeshine box and tear it up. Every week, that police would break up my box, but I'd make my 75 cents and I'd be back next week with a new box I built."
    Jackson was determined to have something the police could never take away. He and his pals would carry a jew's-harp, a washboard and a washtub downtown to play tunes and collect some change. Music was everything to the kids, including Jackson's brother, Arthur, who woke up one day believing he was Miles Davis, a notion he retains to this day, which is why he remains at St. Elizabeths. "If Arthur gives that up, he can come home," Joe says. "But he won't give in." Before long, Jackson took up the drums and began playing parties and weddings and clubs. He had a set of sky-blue pearl drums made, the same set he uses today, the ones he got from Chuck Levin's shop on H Street NE.
    Earl Banks invited Jackson to Jazz Night early last year, and now he's a regular. He carries his own drums, sets them up himself. His fingers are long and bony, the skin on them almost translucent, and if he looks too frail to be doing this, it is an illusion. In his patent leather shoes and white straw hat and tinted shades and sparkling silk suit, Joe Jackson, a showman, a pro, has found his way back.
    "They opened up a way for us to get together again," he says. "It's like a freedom. It's like you press a remote control and I feel like I'm flying. The way it used to be, they'd have Friday-night house parties and they'd set a bottle on the piano and we'd play all night. Now we look out at the church and see the same people we played for in the '50s, and we're bringing their youth back to them. And to us. . . . I started off in Southwest, and now I came back, home."
    Out on I Street SW, the sidewalk is empty but for Butch Warren taking a smoke and a couple of glaring young men in do-rags headed toward the Mall. Onstage at Westminster, half a dozen men embrace one another after a 40-minute set. "I was almost crying up there," says Jacques Johnson, a burly sax man who lives in Oxon Hill and helps direct the band at Eastern High School. He has just finished tearing the place open with his powerhouse sound; he won cheers for a superhuman solo in the breathless manner of the great Illinois Jacquet. At 60, Johnson's been retired from the military for 14 years. He plays wherever he can, but he particularly likes to play Westminster, because "you can play anything you want, and you see guys here who are just so good, and it's the only place you can play what you feel, not what someone wants for their wedding or what some promoter thinks his audience wants to hear."
    Danny Ellis, 69, used to sing with Lionel Hampton's big band, among others; he hasn't been well, but when he steps in front of the band, his face lights up and his crystalline voice peals through the sanctuary. Connie Simmons has trouble walking now -- she's 83 -- but even when she's singing from a chair, she can get the crowd going with "Stormy Weather," one of the standards she sang back when she was a vocalist for Art Tatum in the '50s.
    A 2-year-old from the neighborhood spins in the aisle as Simmons sings the blues. The audience is black and white, old and young, many of them regulars. Roy Bennett, who works for U.S. Customs, and his friend Phillip Miller, a D.C. government employee, have attended 40 straight Jazz Nights. They're young guys, jazz fans who realized they'd hooked into something they'd been jealous of their entire lives, the kind of jazz scene they'd heard about from their elders. "The fellowshipping, the camaraderie, keeping the art alive," Miller says. "It's just amazing to be part of it." Bob White, a singer who plays Jazz Night regularly, takes the stage to read a poem he has written, "Jazz at Westminster." It ends like this: "To the uninitiated, they would think hell is being raised / But in the essence of the music, God is being praised."
    Lou Taylor serves food at the back of the church, watching with a certain proprietary air. "I used to say to the musicians, 'Thank you for coming,' and they kept telling me, 'No, thank you, because this is for us too.' " The fact that the gig is in a church has been a barrier only to a very few musicians. When Banks first invited Lady Byron, a grand old Washington pianist, she replied, "I don't want to play a church." But she heard who else was coming, and play she did. "She got so comfortable, she left her shoes here," Brian Hamilton says. Now she's a regular.
    Clashes between church and jazz have been rare. A singer once got up and belted out the blues number "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On," which Dick Smith thought a tad inappropriate. He has volunteered to write new lyrics for any song that might pose a problem in church. Hamilton, playing emcee, surveys his church and pronounces himself more spiritually fulfilled on this Friday night than he finds himself on Sunday mornings. He watches the musicians and the audience linger well past quitting time. The pastor smiles and says, "I don't think this happens at Blues Alley."
    So now Westminster is two congregations, Friday night and Sunday morning. Friday is larger. Friday is loud and warm; Sunday, quiet and cool. Friday is black with a smattering of white; Sunday, white with a sprinkling of black. On Fridays, the prayers are for ailing musicians; on Sundays, they are for ailing church members, and for abused and lonely children, and even for the city of Washington and its control board.
    On Fridays, Brian Hamilton shows up in casual black. On Sundays, he wears a gray jacket and a tie. On Fridays, Ruth Hamilton serves fried whiting. On Sundays, she sermonizes in a clarion voice about the beauty of having faith, about how "the miracle is not finishing the race, but that we ever start at all."
    There is certainly overlap between the two congregations, with people like Lou Taylor and Georgeann Wilcoxson and Blossom Athey, who serves as the door cashier most weeks and who has been a member of Westminster since 1981, ever since that time she couldn't find a place to park over at the Methodist church.
    Athey -- who is 79 and retired from the law firm of Covington and Burling, where she spent 50 years as a legal secretary, always pushing the rich lawyers to think about the less fortunate -- is one of those Southwest folks who moved here because they believed in renewal. She thought the races could live together. She relished being next to the proj-ects, and she has spent untold hours learning from the people who live there, and helping them, too.
    She has watched her church become mostly gay, and while that doesn't bother her, she wouldn't want it to be known as a gay church. So when the Hamiltons proposed to spend a bigger chunk of the church's energy on reaching out to black Southwest and black Washington, Athey was thrilled. Jazz Night has become not just an extension of her church, but in many ways, the heart of it.
    "I was a trumpet player in the '50s," Athey says. "First trumpet in the Loew's Theaters Government Girls Band. So I know that stuff they play. I see people getting to know each other, and this is what church is about." And if Jazz Night has failed to add bodies to the few dozen who show up to Sunday services, that's fine by the Westminster faithful. "Sunday morning isn't necessarily the best time for community," Wilcoxson says. "I go to Jazz Night when I can, and there've been a couple of people from the Friday night crowd who've visited us on Sunday. That's okay. People continue to separate, just as they always have. There's a difference between being separate and being segregated. Nobody can be as comfortable as they are with people like themselves. But there's a unity in this."
    And if few of Westminster's gay members choose to attend Jazz Night, that's fine, too. Because neither do many of the straight members. "There's an assumption that the gay people and the straight people each have their own interests," Wilcoxson says, "and that's not true."
    The people who devote their time to Westminster are forever convening meetings to discuss what they've done wrong and what they must do to reach out, to make others feel comfortable. This time, everyone seems pretty confident that they haven't done anything wrong -- that, in fact, they've done something that feels right to everyone.
    If the success of Jazz Night also papers over some of the differences that have divided Westminster, all the better. There are certain differences that just need to remain that way.
    At an early meeting about starting Jazz Night, Earl Banks said he had no problem with there being so many homosexuals at the church, but he just wanted to make certain of one thing: "Are you sure you aren't a communist organization trying to overthrow the government?" Brian Hamilton, for once, was speechless.
    Westminster's pastors are more moved by the jazz they have imported into their church than by the hymns they lead on Sunday. The Hamiltons had no idea what Jazz Night would turn into -- there was even a debate about whether to leave the light shining on the cross that hangs above the stage. (Ruth argued for the light on the theory that "this is our house and this is who we are," and she prevailed.)
    They have concluded that something sacred has grown in their sanctuary. Maybe Friday night is the new sacred time, Brian Hamilton says. "Sunday morning is exercise time, or errand time. There are new rhythms in American culture. Sacred time hasn't evaporated; it's just shifted. Friday night is time to exhale, the work week is over."
    Or maybe it is simply the music. "I don't think that jazz is more spiritual than any other kind of music," Ruth Hamilton says. "But anybody who can improvise and break out of the rules is very Christlike to me. Jazz, like Christ, is about freedom."
    When Duke Ellington presented his first Sacred Concert in 1965, there were those who protested that God would not understand the message of jazz. The composer replied that his sacred music was not a message directed toward God, but "people talking to people about God." In any event, the Duke said, "There is no language that God does not understand."
    To be sure, some people attend Jazz Night for the cheap meal, and some just to get out, and many for the music. "But those are all reasons people come to church, too," Ruth Hamilton notes. Each Friday night, at the end of the set, Earl Banks shouts to the crowd, "Everybody, take a hand, shake a hand. Take a hand, shake a hand." Sometimes he adds: "Give thanks to God." And people do it. More than a few of those handshakes turn into arm grabs and hugs and hands draping over shoulders.
    Church is a body of believers. Church is where you find it. Church is where, after listening all your life, you hear.


Marc Fisher writes the Potomac Confidential column for the Magazine.
He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m.

Jazz Night takes place on Fridays from 6 to 9 p.m. at
Westminster Presbyterian Church, 400 I St. SW.
For more information, call 202-484-7700.

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company