It was Easter of 1982 when a group of 12 people met in a Washington, DC row house to listen to Rev. Jim Dickerson share his call for a new, diverse community of committed, faithful believers who would take Jesus’ gospel message of unconditional love, social action, personal faith and Christian community to an area of the city with both significant need and potential. There they would found a racially, culturally and economically mixed, neighborhood-based church with both weekday and Sunday ministries to the surrounding neighborhood. The basis for this new community would grow from Jesus’ call to be His Body, the Church – an alternative community of faith in the city – and incorporate the exportable traditions and principles of the Church of the Saviour, a local multi-denominational Christian church founded by Rev. Gordon and Mary Cosby,* in a new form, with new people and in a new place.
Jim shared with those gathered that he was ready to answer the call on his life. He described his personal background as a troubled young man from an alcoholic home who became a Christian at age 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas in the midst of the political unrest during the 1960′s Civil Rights movement. As a young Christian, he left a secure job to work with disadvantaged youth, but struggled to find a church that fostered both personal faith, spiritual growth and social justice/mission activities. All of these factors eventually brought Jim to the Church of the Saviour after a friend and mentor told him how Church of the Saviour actively attempted to combine the personal and social dimensions of the Christian gospel, emphasized the integrity and commitment of church membership, provided structures for support, growth and accountability in small groups known as mission groups, and ordained its members as ministers of the church.
After two years of discerning his call, Jim moved to Washington, DC in 1971 to join the Church of the Saviour with the intention of returning to Arkansas to start a similar church there. But in 1972, Jim had married his wife, Grace, bought a home, and put down roots in Washington, DC. By 1982, after several years of inward and outward preparation, exploration and a few false starts, God made Jim ready to put his call in action.
Five people from the original band of explorers continued to meet, study, and pray for discernment and decided to make the commitment to full covenant membership, for one year at the time, in what was to become New Community Church. In the beginning, the church worshipped in a conference room in the For the Love of Children office on 14th Street. In 1984, God answered their prayers for a permanent site, leading Jim to the ruined shell of a building at 614 S Street in the Shaw neighborhood. The property, while in great disrepair, had a rich and wonderful history as a boarding house and nightclub for African-American entertainers who performed at the famous Howard Theater in the days of segregated Washington. The neighborhood had become notorious for drug activity, crime and poverty. Drug pushers controlled this and other properties on the block. The city government had $70,000 in liens against the property and renovations totaling over $300,000 were required to make it habitable. With only $ 2,000 in the bank, the small group of Church members decided to act on faith and take ownership of the building.
While renovation took three years to complete and without Manna Inc’s help it would not have happened, the first worship service took place soon after the purchase in March of 1984. Jim and others reached out to the drug dealers on the street and they responded with acceptance and protection. “Baldy” ,the drug boss, even cooked hot dogs and burgers on his grill for each group of volunteers who came to work on the building. Mission groups formed: “Bridges” to nurture prospective members; a group called to healing prayer;”Hope and a Home,” a transitional housing program for homeless families; and Community Medical Care, a clinic providing health care and the ministry of healing in Shaw.
The first program to be established in the New Community Church building was the After School and Advocacy Program (ASAP), Grace Dickerson’s mission to the children of the neighborhood. Next came Community Advocacy and Referral for the Elderly (CARE), Marilyn McDonald’s outreach ministry to the isolated and home bound elderly of Shaw. Then Manna, Inc, Jim Dickerson’s ministry to buy rundown properties and then renovate and sell them to low-income buyers, located its office in the church building. Other missions flourished: Young Life for teens; Arts in Action for kids; the Academy of Hope for adults seeking a high school equivalency degree; Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous; the I Have a Dream Neighborhood Association; and later the Enterprising Staffing Services, a temporary Staffing agency that hired and placed low-income workers.
Today Sunday worship at NCC is an exuberant, spirit-filled experience with thirty to fifty adults and children in attendance. Both the church and neighborhood have entered a new era, but there is still much to be done. The racial, cultural, economic mix of residents has changed significantly. As has the very high cost of housing which no one would have predicted in 1982. Much commercial development has occurred since 1982. Now, a drug deal is hard to find on the street. While a few of the original founders remain active, a new generation of members is helping to realize God’s dream for New Community and and the new era we have entered into. The future is wide open, we continue to be called as we were in the beginning and perhaps the best and most challenging times are ahead of us. All are welcome to explore New Community as a place of belonging, healing, service and growth in Christ and His alternative Beatitude Way.