By Don Clemmer
WASHINGTON, D.C., 4 May, 2013 —”Welcome all sinners,” says the banner over the main entrance of St. of Martin of Tours Catholic Church in big, bold letters. It’s the first indication that the otherwise traditional structure on North Capitol Street has a vision of faith that transcends the walls of the church building and permeates the surrounding neighborhood.
The Rev. Michael Kelley, 64, pastor of St. Martin’s since 1992, says the surrounding neighborhood has seen its share of challenges over the years, including poverty, drugs and violence. That’s why this priest of the Archdiocese of Washington espouses a philosophy of “taking our faith to the streets literally.”
This is most evident in the parish’s various social action ministries, including a food pantry and clothes closet. The parish gives out 50 bags of groceries every Thursday morning, which Kelley says draws a line halfway up the block. They also host 17 12-step groups every month.
“I see this as part of our commitment to the community,” Kelley says. He notes that almost all of the 12-step participants aren’t members of St. Martin’s
When St. Martin’s celebrates Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, they bring their vision to traditional practices such as the washing of feet on Holy Thursday and the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Kelley and the entire parish council wash the feet of parishioners at the front of the church, a sign of their mission to serve the community. On Good Friday afternoon, Kelley leads parishioners on a “social justice stations of the cross” through the surrounding neighborhood.
Carrying a large wooden cross and passing around a bullhorn, parishioners process through the streets surrounding the church, praying reflections tying the suffering of Jesus at his crucifixion to the experiences of the neighborhood.
Reflections deal with drug addiction, homelessness, incarceration and other issues. In recent years, the Stations of the Cross have made a stop in front of the Summit at St. Martin’s apartments. These affordable apartments occupy the property of the former St. Martin’s convent and were planned and constructed in cooperation with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.
The plan to build affordable housing at a time when the area was rapidly gentrifying met with resistance, says Kelley. At one point, opponents of the project got the convent declared a historic site in an effort to derail construction. Ultimately, this meant the old building had to be moved rather than demolished, and the apartments opened in 2010.
Kelley says that, without the service to the community throughout the year, the rituals during Holy Week would be “hollow.” The spirit of service, he says, is intrinsic to the parish’s identity.
“We’re more like the emergency room than the country club,” Kelley says. “People come in bruised, beaten, worn out, tired — and we accept whoever comes in the door and welcome them with open arms and connect them with God’s word and God’s healing through the sacraments.”
All photos by Don Clemmer.