News and Views

Emory Beacon of Light Shines Bright at Ribbon Cutting

Posted by Erik Alsgaard on

The Beacon Center frames Emory UMC on Georgia Ave. in Washington, D.C.'s Brightwood neighborhood. 
Photos on this page by Melissa Lauber.

By Erik Alsgaard

The Rev. Joe Daniels, the lead pastor of Emory UMC in Washington, D.C., stood at the podium in his church’s sanctuary.

“Good morning, everyone!” he said.

He was greeted with a one-minute standing ovation.

That’s because this morning – March 13, 2019 – was no ordinary morning for him, leaders and members of his church, and the whole DC community in Ward 4 known as Brightwood. This morning was the ribbon cutting ceremony and celebration of The Beacon Center, a years-long vision come to life.

Emory UMC and its nonprofit entity, the Emory Beacon of Light, Inc., in partnership with The Community Builders, Inc. — a nonprofit developer of affordable and mixed-income residential and mixed-use developments —officially opened The Beacon Center with speeches and a formal ribbon cutting ceremony for the 99-unit affordable rental housing, commercial and congregational development project.

After $56 million and many years, tears and fears, the vision had become reality. It left Daniels wiping his eyes and his brow.

“This is the day that the Lord has made,” he proclaimed after dabbing his face with a handkerchief. “It’s a beautiful day for a ribbon cutting!” 

It was also a day nurtured in persistence, patience and prayer “in a world too consumed with wealth, power and privilege, and too often bereft of concern for those looking for a hand up, not a hand out,” said Bishop LaTrelle Easterling in a speech before the ribbon cutting.

The Beacon Center is a direct response, Daniels  said, to the growing need for affordable housing in the Washington, particularly for individuals and families living below the average median income of the city. The overall median household income in DC stood at $75,506 in 2016[i], according to Census data.

However, when adjusted by race, white household median income stood at $122,369, while black household median income stood at $37,891, or about 31 percent of white household median income.[ii] As a result, many black families are priced out of the expensive DC market for homes or apartments.

This crisis did not go unnoticed by Daniels and the members of Emory UMC. More than 10 years ago, Daniels presented his vision of building affordable housing in the church’s community. As a result, on Oct. 7, 2016, the first shovel turned dirt for the Beacon Center.

Supported by a variety of funders including the United Methodist Development Fund, DC Housing Finance Agency, DC Department of Housing and Community Development, Redstone Equity Partners, Chase, Wells Fargo, The Community Builders and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Fund, the project also includes community spaces, a restaurant/café featuring a culinary arts training program, an indoor/outdoor jazz café, and other amenities that position it to be a community hub for culture, entertainment, jobs and other entrepreneurial ventures.

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, center, stands next to Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., on her left, and
the Rev. Joe Daniels, on her right, at ribbon cutting ceremonies March 13 at The Beacon Center.

The vision, however, is more than 10 years old, Daniels said. In his speech, the pastor traced it back to the early 1800s and the grandmother of Elizabeth Proctor Thomas, a free black woman who owned 11 acres of land on what is now the location of the Beacon Center and Fort Stevens, next door.

She, too, provided housing, taking care of free black people and runaway slaves. Union forces eventually took the land in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, placing Thomas’ belongings under a tree when government leaders realized the city had no northern defenses following the Union defeat at Manassas.

“We are here,” Daniels said, “because of the vision that was cast with her some 200-plus years ago that, at that time, also included worship space for four Methodist churches that still serve in the District of Columbia, each of which finds its origins on this hill, in this place where we are right now.”

That vision was captured, Daniels said, when he was a 34-year old “skinny preacher” standing at a dry cleaner across Georgia Ave. from the church in 1994.

“I was waiting for my shirts to get cleaned,” he said, “but praying that (the church’s) side of the street could one day be cleaned up from homelessness, heroin distribution, drug trafficking, drunkenness, prostitution, and the residence of hurting, broken souls.”

Daniels extended that vision to his congregation and found, there, people hungry to see hurting lives redeemed and housed affordably.

“I’m just grateful,” said Daniels after the ceremony. “I’m just grateful for the people of Emory, the people of this community, for all of our partners, and for the mayor, who has been so supportive.”

Daniels said that the day was not just the culmination and celebration of what’s been done, but a commencement; a beginning. His vision, in other words, is not yet done.

“The vision does not end because we have returned to our space of worship and we’ve finished this project,” he said. “The Lord has opened up another door for us. We need to replicate this model here in the city, and replicate it in the region, nationally and even internationally. Churches have a collective power to bring about significant change in community and we have to understand that salvation is more than just Sunday mornings. The need is 24/7.”

The ministry of Emory UMC, Bishop Easterling said, showed that it would not fall prey to the “not in my backyard” mentality of many other communities.

“This is a day that stands as a primer on discipleship, leadership and partnership,” said the bishop. “This triad of faith transformed the aspirational into the practical and creates a new kind of church which offers blessings for all.”

The bishop also noted that it is ministry like Emory that must be the hallmark of United Methodism, rather than headlines generated by a General Conference.

“I’m so exceedingly proud of Rev. Dr. Daniels and this Emory Fellowship,” said Bishop Easterling. “I know… what is being said about The United Methodist Church, based on what happened at General Conference. This is the heart The United Methodist Church; this is our Wesleyan heritage, and this is our Wesleyan legacy.”

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, speaking at the ceremony, said that she had been a supporter of this project since its start.

“One man,” she said, speaking of Daniels when she first met him, “decided to take back a corner. And he had an incredible church to get behind the wild and crazy ideas he had.”

The mayor, who previously served as a Councilmember of Ward 4, said that the truth was, before Emory even had the appropriate space and the vision to create what they had done, they were already in ministry to the community.

“He (Daniels) made a way,” Bowser said. “He decided that the church was bigger than its four walls and it had to go out into its community.”




Deaconess Shelly Owen Mar 13, 2019 10:50pm

I remember an Annual Conference session when Rev. Daniels presented his vision for this area and the people who abide there. The Rev. Laura Easto (at the time) stepped to the microphone and said, "I'm not going to vote against Joe Daniels!" I felt the Holy Spirit sweep through the ballroom with her words. Congratulations to him and the people of the congregations who also felt that Spirit and had the courage to step up and follow it's guidance. This ministry is so needed and I am grateful to God for using these instruments and entities to see it though. --Deaconess Shelly Owen, Now serving in The Oklahoma Annual Conference, Former member of North Bethesda UMC

Anna Wokman Mar 14, 2019 8:27pm

In 2000 I visited Emory and Dr. Daniel on behalf of the General Board of Global Ministries. As we walked through the neighborhood, he shared his visions for the future. What a blessing to see their dream of housing become a reality.