By Wilma Goldstein
For 25 years, Brian and Ruth Hamilton have served as co-pastors at Westminster Presbyterian Church, located on the corner of 4th and I Streets in DC’s Southwest neighborhood.
“I think a church really needs to be a community center and has the responsibility of organizing around all kinds of issues and problems that afflict the community. We’ve tried to do that over the years, not just to conduct services, but to really be out and engage with the neighborhood,” Brian Hamilton said in an interview with the Buzzard Point Oral History Project.
This guiding principle has benefited both the church and the community. Westminster has served as a haven for LGBTQ neighbors, immigrants, the recently incarcerated and other historically marginalized groups. As a result, the Reverends Hamilton have built a diverse group of congregants, followers, and others who have received comfort and assistance from their various ministries that have evolved over the years.
In recognition of their thoughtfulness, selflessness and devotion, the Education and Scholarship Task Force of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly (SWNA) presented the Reverends Brian and Ruth Hamilton with the 2021 Star Award. Each year, the Star Award is given to a Southwest organization that practices exemplary community service.
On August 15, SWNA President Donna Purchase presented the award, noting that the Hamiltons have been longtime supporters of the work of SWNA and the Education and Scholarship Task Force. In prior years, before the COVID-19 pandemic required pivoting to a virtual ceremony, celebrations of SWNA’s scholarships and awards were often held at Westminster.
Ruth Lytle and Brian Hamilton met while each staffed churches in Detroit in the 1990s.
In February of 1996, they accepted an offer to co-pastor at Westminster and moved into one of Southwest’s original Sanitary Houses, where they raised two sons and still live today.
Ruth, the daughter and granddaughter of pastors, lived in New Mexico and Arkansas before studying at Mt. Holyoke and training for the ministry at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Brian, who was born and raised in Maine, went to college at Eastern University and then to the New School of Social Research, now known as New School University, for a master’s degree and doctoral studies. Frustrated by his inability to find a place in academia where he could work on the intersection of sociology and theology in urban settings, he returned to Eastern University for his ministerial degree. Time spent at Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia convinced him that he could find what he was looking for among select Presbyterian churches, and he never looked back.
While they share many pastoral activities, Ruth, the more extroverted of the two, leads community outreach with existing and emerging organizations. Brian is known for his ability to build and repair almost anything, and created the beautiful stained glass window in the church sanctuary. He also established and serves as President of the Southwest Development Corporation, which includes Westminster’s food and catering programs, Friday Night Jazz, Monday Night Blues and the bimonthly discussion group Thinking About Jazz, which is held on Saturday afternoons. A fervent fan of American roots music, Brian is frequently heard saying “God loves jazz.”
A 2019 article in CapitolBop described the birth of Westminster’s Jazz Night as a way for the then majority white congregation to connect with the then majority Black surrounding neighborhood. Today, the event connects hundreds of Black and white fans of jazz, known as America’s classical music, and honors African-American cultural traditions, including offering fried fish on Fridays. For the Hamiltons, these concerts are conduits to crucial community-building.
Ruth’s outreach in the community began with her service on several boards, including the Community Benefits Council, which she chaired for a decade, and the United Planning Board. The relationships she built working in the community have allowed the Hamiltons, who think of themselves as servant leaders, to successfully develop a wide range of partnerships based on shared values and vision.
Their personal flexibility and accessibility results in Westminster hosting a broad spectrum of programs and events. Westminster has provided space and support to survivors of domestic violence and narcotics addiction and held anti-racism events and prayer vigils for families who have lost children to police violence. They have hosted car washes that raise money for organizations like SWNA and helped make choir robes for children at Amidon-Bowen. Westminster has provided access to COVID-19 testing, offered food and sleeping space to advocates and protesters who travel to DC, held community meetings and dance parties, and hosted April’s Remember the Pearl event. Food and Friends, the organization that delivered daily meals to homebound people with HIV/AIDS, started in Westminster’s kitchen.
In addition to a commitment to service, the Hamiltons have been allies and advocates for social justice. Reverend Brian Hamilton performed marriage and civil union ceremonies for members of the LBGTQ community before these unions were recognized under the law, which he calls “practicing ecclesiastical disobedience.”
Along with other churches in Southwest, Westminster is working on plans for a new facility that will include both affordable and market-priced housing. As they look to the future, the Hamiltons aim to expand their work in the arts and provide even more space for community needs.