By Matthew Koehler
Pastor Phillip Huber walked into a leaky, dilapidated church for his first worship service in Southwest D.C. on April 1, 1999 – a Thursday. “I said that God had a sense of humor ever since. I’m in my 21st year of my two year commitment to St. Matthews.” His short mission turned into a decades long journey that came to an end in a turbulent 2020.
Arriving from St. John Lutheran in Thurmont, MD on a mission from the bishop to “see if [they] could find a path forward,” Pastor Huber had his work cut out for him. But, before coming to Southwest he was consulting with congregations to help them re-engage their communities to be a larger, positive force in the life of their communities.
Initially, Pastor Huber’s main concerns were structural, literally. The building was falling apart to be able to do ministry and outreach in the community with a building in that shape. In fact, by 2001 they could no longer use the sanctuary. “There were too many holes in the roof, too many leaks…We couldn’t keep it dry. Mold was growing and mildew, and we just basically had to shut it off. We lost that capacity.”
Perhaps, then, it was God’s mission that he ended up here in this corner of D.C.
“There was no way that the congregation could see a future in that building. Yet, St. Matthews is one of the more diverse congregations in our evangelical Lutheran church in America.” Pastor Huber told me that his mission was to come to St. Matthews to find a path forward for the church. “In our language [he had] to find what God’s mission was for St. Matthews and how it could re-engage the Southwest community and continue to be the positive force the way it had been for so many years.” According to Pastor Huber, the Synod (equivalent to a Methodist Conference or a Roman Catholic or Episcopal diocese) did not want to lose the unique and diverse congregation in this corner of the nation’s capital. “A Synod,” Pastor Huber says, “means walking together. So it literally means ‘a group of people walking together.”
They moved into the new building in 2019, but before that they moved around a bit – a congregation without a home.
In December of 2005, they left the old building and joined St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church (located in SW). They stayed there for three years until they joined First Trinity at Judiciary Square. At First Trinity, they didn’t just find a space to worship but built a new alliance that exists to this day. The two congregations shared in ministry and “part of what has occurred is that as St. Mattthews was preparing to come back to Southwest,” Pastor Huber explained, people wondered that because the two congregations were doing so well together, why should they stop doing that?
“St. Matthews and First Trinity have continued and have further cemented this shared ministry between them,” Pastor Huber said. Now they have two administrative assistants in the two buildings that work together. They have even launched a joint website. “By having this shared ministry, we’re able to provide and do even more than what we may have been able to do by ourselves. We use the phrase ‘one mission but in two locations.'”
I asked what some of the biggest challenges were when taking over the ministry in Southwest and Huber told me it “turned out to be [the] development process and getting to the new building.”
The building itself was completed in 2019 but the work actually began almost 20 years before in 2000. As early as 2002, they were talking to developers and signed a development deal in 2005. But the process wasn’t straight forward.
“One of the big struggles was trying to work through all of the processes in the city and with the D.C. government. There is no preferred status for the church anymore. That’s long gone. There were people in the community that opposed us building in that spot.”
Resistance to new development isn’t new, and these days, especially as it pertains to D.C., there is a constant tension between developers and the communities they want to build in.
Why did people oppose St. Matthews building a new building? “Don’t need another church!” Pastor Huber said of one complaint. “You’re going to block my view of the Capitol!”
He also describes a deeper issue in the 21st century that goes beyond pure aesthetics and touches upon cultural changes and a waning respect for religion. “The notion that Christendom is dead and over with was certainly felt and born out by the congregation. Fifty, 60, 80 years ago, had the congregation proposed to do what it did, it would’ve had open arms, but there just isn’t that same kind of…” He paused on our call, choosing his words carefully, “There isn’t a respect for the church in the way that there once was. In some regards, there’s outright hostility towards the church.”
“On the other hand,” he continued, “the majority of people were very supportive. It was the people willing to speak on our behalf at hearings…that really got us through.”
They hit another roadblock in 2008 with the great recession, and the development was, at that point, “dead in the water for three years.”
“The real struggle is that development does not happen overnight. It’s a long process.” Again, he points back to his congregation, their resilience, and “perseverance” to never give up on the dream of having their own building again.
Even though this wasn’t what the pastor was expecting coming to Southwest, one of his biggest challenges, and accomplishments, was seeing that a new place of worship for his congregation was erected. He emphasizes, though, that the new building went beyond just his congregation. It was for worship, yes, but it was also a place where the community could hold events. It was also a place of healing. “My ministry with some of the young African American men who’ve come into the courtyard to sit and talk with me, provided some encouragement and hope for them. And, for me! They changed my life – that they were open to this older White guy to be able to sit and talk with them. To talk about the life of the community and what we could do to improve it.”
Pastor Huber says that the idea that his church was, or could become, a more vibrant town center is what drove the idea behind features of the new building, like the coffee shop, Sacred Grounds Cafe, the meeting and conference center, the audiovisual technology, etc. He even pointed out that a generator could be wheeled into the courtyard, plugged in, and the whole building could be run off grid. There are also showers in the lower restrooms, and he notes with some pride that St. Matthews could be used as an emergency shelter if the city ever needed it.
Wary of the criticisms of other development projects in the neighborhood that have been accused of exacerbating gentrification, Pastor Huber defends how St. Matthews moved forward and said that “nothing could be further from the truth” as it concerns the new building. “There was no housing at all on the property.” It was, in fact, an empty lot with a failed community garden at one point. St. Matthews, Pastor Huber explains, brought 220 new residential spaces into the community “of which, 11% are affordable housing.”
“We also brought, and this is what people forget – we brought, on average, $630k of new tax base money for the city.” The apartments that they built generate that revenue, he reiterates. “It’s pumping that money into the economy every year. Year in and year out.”
In defense of the majority market rate housing in the new building, he said he argued to the city to use that tax money for additional affordable housing. He sounded disappointed but resigned that the city isn’t using the money that way. “It wasn’t my decision.”
He told me, though, that what the community would be missing if St. Matthews hadn’t come back would be greater than the drawbacks of rebuilding. They’ve been providing meals for the community, worship, and a space for the community to come together and have conversation.
Instead of a divisive project, a place that separates the often disparate socioeconomic groups, the church brings them together. “We sit right at the divide of those who have enough and those who don’t have enough. That’s always been part of the diversity of St. Matthew’s congregation is that rich and poor, alike, worship together [and] make decisions about the church together. And that’s a rather unique piece.”
Speaking on the dynamics of neighborhood change, Pastor Huber points out that he understands the apprehension people have, especially long time residents. “There’s always a concern that the changes that occur don’t allow those who have lived there for a long period of time to be able to maintain and continue to live there. So I share that concern.”
“On the other hand, you look at what they’re getting ready to do at the Greenleaf project and other kinds of projects on the board. I think we’re going to be able to increase the affordable housing that’s available in the Southwest community. It’s certainly a much more vibrant community than it was 21 years ago.”
Speaking generally of development throughout Southwest and Navy Yard, he says that it has brought “negative issues,” but he thinks that people don’t pay attention to the benefits of development. He also said that throughout the development process, St. Matthews listened to the concerns of neighbors and actually changed their plans based on community input. At one community meeting at Westminster, a community member approached him and thanked him for being the first development project to actually listen to the community. “St. Matthews has shown how you can do development and be a positive force in the neighborhood.”
St. Matthews’ real fight, though, was with the city.
Their vision of bringing more workforce housing to Southwest was novel back in 2002. “We wanted to try to make more of those apartments available for…lower-middle income people, workforce people, you know, fire fighters, police officers, teachers – who were losing an opportunity to live in Southwest. We wanted to try to make more of our housing available to that strata of people.”
At the time, according to Pastor Huber the city was resistant to changing the formula of development, and because of what they were trying to do, there was more scrutiny on them. They needed “some kind of economic engine to be able to rebuild” and none of the congregations had the resources to build millions of dollars worth of new buildings. “The churches would have disappeared had there not been some way to be able to afford the new buildings and provide the outreach and ministry that we do in the congregation.”
“So, Mary Williams was an ANC many years ago when I first came. And, whenever she spoke at the church she would always preface her remarks by saying thanks to St. Matthew again for being the town center of Southwest.”
Pastor Huber clarifies that while St. Matthews isn’t the hub of Southwest, it is a hub for anyone in the community. Before COVID, he says, they were trying to pick up a lot of the programming that used to be available at the old SW Library before it was torn down for the new building.
One of the greatest strengths of St. Matthews is its diversity, and it is that aspect of ministry in Southwest that Pastor Huber will miss most.
Contemplating his coming retirement from parish ministry, Pastor Huber explains that he has no regrets, but feels a great sense of accomplishment and purpose fulfilled. “What I’ll miss are the relationships with people. And, the ministry.” Walking the streets, he was always able to engage people and talk to them about their lives and understand what their needs were. “What more could the church do that would assist people in their lives.”
Walking into St. Matthews, Huber tells me, you could talk about Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ issues – could talk to people who have lived those experiences and work in the spheres of activism, and can teach the community something “that we can’t possibly know out of our own life experiences.” All of this, he said has been an important part of their congregation as well as his development as a pastor.
“There is a genuine concern for justice and for the needs of those at the margins. A lot of my time – a lot of the community’s time and resources – is about the fair treatment of people. And, about [having] just systems for people to work in.”
Leaving the ministry behind, Pastor Huber said:
“It’s been one of the great privileges of my life to serve St. Matthews in the Southwest community. And I always saw my call, not just to [the church], but to the community as well. My parish was Southwest. For any good that I was able to do, I am extremely grateful. I know that my perspective in life was very much changed by the people and by the environment of Southwest. I go to retirement from parish ministry really joyful that I had this experience. That God gave me the opportunity to be here, and to be here for as long as I was.”
Of course, God’s work is never done and Pastor Huber isn’t done with his work yet.
“I’m still going to be a pastor but I will not be in parish ministry anymore. I will continue to do my disaster ministry (he says he’s been a disaster consultant for the Lutheran Church for 35 years).”