I have previously written about my concerns in the removal of statues and names from public buildings due to contemporary views of historical figures like George Washington. For that reason, it should come as little surprise how I view the decision of the current congregation of Christ Church in Alexandria to a memorial plaque to George Washington. I once lived near the church and occasionally went to services there. including the funeral of our late Associate Dean Admiral John Jenkins. It is a thrill to sit in a church that once served Washington and others. It is deeply disappointing to see the congregation now reject that long history in the removal of a plaque placed on the church in 1870. The reason offered below by church leaders is that the plaque made people feel unwelcomed or threatened because Washington was a slave owner.
The historic Episcopal church was one of the primary sites of worship for George Washington. However, plaques to both Washington and Robert E. Lee were ordered removed because “… Many in our congregation feel a strong need for the church to stand clearly on the side of ‘All are welcome — no exceptions’ . . . Because the sanctuary is a worship space, not a museum, there is no appropriate way to inform visitors about the history of the plaques or to provide additional context except for the in-person tours provided by our docents.”
It is a rather odd statement since, as shown by the Jefferson Memorial, one can always add context to a memorial that acknowledges the hypocrisy of being a slave owner. It would seem a rather simply thing to retain one’s historic association with Washington while adding a plaque that raises the issue of slavery and its meaning to the contemporary congregation. Such an effort avoids the sanitizing of history in favor of better understanding that history.
The signatories below specifically states
Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christ Church lives into this call, feeding the hungry with our Lazarus ministry, welcoming the stranger in our refugee ministry, and inviting all to worship with us. The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.
I fail to see why a plaque to the first President would make some feel “unsafe” in attending services in a progressive and welcoming church. There are such references to Washington all around the church in Alexandria, including the fact that the street sign outside the church reads “Washington Street.” That was named after the same guy, but most do not feel threatened in driving to the church or into Alexandria. By the way, the cross street for the church is Cameron St. (named after Lord Fairfax of Cameron who was also a slave owner).
The 13 members signing the letter below seemed intent in making a statement with the removal of the plaque rather than actually address the underlying historical conflict. The church once held a congregation of not just slave owners but confederates like Lee. That is part of its history. One can find meaning in that history — not by eradicating its evidence but acknowledging it and placing it into a new context. I fail to see why the removal was necessary as opposed to the use of the memorial to address slavery with added information.
What do you think?
Here is the letter: