Coffee With Pastor Howard-John Wesley
The Alfred Street Baptist Church's Pastor reflects on the church, its mission and its remarkable scope of activity.
The Alfred Street Baptist Church (ASBC), founded in 1803, has been led by Pastor Howard-John Wesley for nearly 12 years. The church grew during that time from about 2,800 to 10,000 members. The membership growth and the expansion of the scope of its ministry reflect the church’s continuing vibrancy. Referring to the church’s growth, “We are fortunate,” Wesley said, “We are no longer defined by the four walls at the corner of Duke Street and Alfred Street.”
Between 40 to 45 percent of the church’s members live in Virginia. Wesley described ASBC as a national church with members from as far away as Korea and as many as 60,000 people participating remotely. As the church has grown so have the challenges of managing its resources and of organizing volunteer and other programs for members whom Wesley describes as, “being active in their faith in large numbers.” Wesley said that a call for volunteers for a Saturday morning project can yield 2,000 people.
Wesley did not know much about Alexandria when he first came to the church. In his time leading the church he believes Alexandria has “stepped out of the shadow of Washington D.C.” and that “we have developed our own identity” as an attractive place to live. He believes that President Obama did a lot to bring “rising, college educated people of color” to this region and that there was a “buzz that drew people here.” He also credits the influence of corporations that have moved into, or enhanced their presence in, Alexandria and surrounding areas.
Wesley views these developments as contributing to “the unavoidable consequences of gentrification” which are specifically observable in the Route 1 corridor. Wesley views part of ASBC’s mission as, “making sure that income is not the only criterion for enjoying the city.” He is particularly concerned with protecting those in the community who live in increasingly scarce rental housing.
He is proud of the church’s volunteer activities, for example, its Feed the 5,000 program—a reference to the Bible story of Jesus organizing the feeding of a large crowd from small quantities of loaves of bread and fishes—which replaced the tradition of an annual pastoral gift. Wesley said, “We were able to honor an anniversary by giving to others.”
Wesley said that one of the church’s challenges is, “How do we make people who want to come [to the church] be good neighbors?” He said that with four daily servicesk, “we would park anywhere” and that the membership growth compounded congestion in Old Town. He spoke ruefully of receiving a letter from a nearby resident asserting that the church, “doesn’t belong in Old Town anymore.” The heart of ASBC’s challenge, Wesley said, is “managing growth without negative effects.”
ASBC has had strong program delivery ties with Christ Church’s food and social assistance programs and with the nonprofits ALIVE! and Carpenter’s Shelter. Wesley said the church has a positive relationship with the Alexandria Police Department. He said that he wanted the church’s young people to know that, “You don’t have to be afraid of this officer.”
Wesley said that while churches and public schools should operate as separate institutions, he regrets that “we don’t have very strong ties” with the public schools.
In Wesley’s view, ASBC “used to hang its hat on its founding in 1803” but the church’s future involves “more than worship” and that “we cannot love God without loving our brothers and sisters” which is the essence of “what it really means to serve.” Wesley believes that the church’s future will run counter to demographic commentaries that correlate church attendance with age. He said, “The work we do is very attractive to 30-year olds.”
Wesley’s message to those who know little or nothing about ASBC is, “We are an open environment—all are welcome here regardless of race or background. This is a safe space to love and serve and be served. We have a legacy of service to all.”
Wesley is committed to advancing ideas in the political arena and said he “needs to share my positions and passions.” He sees voting as “an absolute necessity” and an extension of Christian identity. He says that a failure to vote is “disrespectful to all of those who made voting possible.” In the past, the church’s membership materials included voter registration cards. He described voting as necessary for anyone “who would be an advocate for justice, especially for black and brown lives.”
He said that the church is proud of its members who have run for public office, notably City Councilor John Taylor Chapman and School Board member Jacinta Greene.
Wesley attracted attention when he decided to take a sabbatical. He said, “The clergy are terrible at resting” and noted the biblical teaching that, “On the seventh day God rested.” He described himself as “burned out and wrestling with depression and anxiety” when he began his sabbatical. He is grateful that the church provided time off for him, “to simply rest and seek out counseling and physical aid.”
His sabbatical ended prematurely in early 2020 when he came back to participate in discussions shaping the church’s response to the pandemic. He recommends that anyone with the opportunity for a sabbatical use it. He now takes about one week off each quarter “to spiritually reset.” Every August ASBC suspends all of its program activities, except worship.
Wesley, a native of Chicago, “looks back and laments” at the conditions in the city where he was raised. He points to “deep racial divides and economic divides” and says that Chicago “has never been known for great political leadership.” He prays for the pastors and churches there but is convinced that progress can only come “one child, one family, one neighborhood at a time.”
Wesley, a parent of two teenaged boys, said his children transitioned successfully to online learning and that an unexpected benefit of the pandemic is that he spends more time with his children. He attends all of their athletic competitions, something that was not possible before the pandemic. He said that, prior to the pandemic, “My children had never known me on Saturday or Sunday,” a condition that changed when church services and other activities went online.