“It’s so awesome to see how far we’ve come, that I feel like a pioneer.” Sitting in the new meetinghouse of the Capitol Hill Ward — only seven blocks from the U.S. Capitol building — Marilyn Bruce from Hawaii voiced the sentiments of many who gathered for its dedication on Nov. 22. These are the pioneers of today, members of a ward who have helped establish the Church in a historic area of Washington.
Yet since its creation in 1991 as a branch in the Suitland Maryland Stake, the ward has never had a traditional LDS house of worship.
“We met in townhouses, a Church-owned converted Safeway grocery store, and as guests of another ward,” said Bishop Darrin Howell. “We grew into a ward and now this beautiful building gives us a chance to better embrace our community and welcome neighbors to Church services and activities.”
President Russell M. Nelson, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gave the dedicatory prayer. He was accompanied by Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy and Elder Jack N. Gerard, an Area Seventy. They joined local civic leaders, members of the interfaith community and neighbors to celebrate with members of the ward.
It was an evening of reunion as current and former ward members and friends recalled their journey from leaky basements and rooms without air conditioning to the clean and welcoming new structure that can accommodate two wards.
“Our ward theme has been ‘building Zion on Capitol Hill,’ ” said Sui Lang Panoke, who serves as Relief Society president of the ward. “We’ve been doing that in our hearts all these years as we’ve met in other locations, but now we have this beautiful meetinghouse of Zion built just for us. We’re a colorful membership, but we leave our titles at the door to foster love and compassion for one another.”
A former branch president and ward bishop, Bruce Degn, concurred, noting that the new building will help a transient congregation of young professionals, students and local residents.
“It’s a tabernacle in the desert,” he said, “a place of refuge and a place where everyone can come to worship together, forget their cares, and think on the Lord.”
Robert Dunbar, a convert and long-time member of the ward, agrees. He said he had “given up on religion” until the missionaries found him in 1979. He was drawn to the ward because of the “special feel” of the congregation, the friendship and the help he could count on when he needed it.
A recurring theme for the dedicatory service was the Lord’s definition of “building,” both physically and spiritually.
Bishop Howell reminded his flock that they are “stewards of a beautiful space,” which would enable them to be careful stewards of each other and their neighbors.
“What we do outside the building is what is important,” he said. “We have a chance to practice our values through community outreach and service.”
Tawanna Lassey, a convert from West Africa, discussed how she was a recipient of that outreach, especially through the missionaries. She said joining the Church changed her life forever and, as a single mom, she’s grateful for caring Church members.
President Darren K.S. Sakai, president of the Suitland Maryland Stake, also examined the purposes of Church buildings, adding, “It’s never really about the building.” He quoted lines from Edwin Markham’s poem “Man-Making” that expresses how the making of a man is of fundamental importance: In vain we build the world, unless the builder also grows. He added that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the pearl of great price that members should showcase by their lives and actions.
Emphasizing that counsel, Elder Hallstrom explained that the Lord’s intentions are “not to build buildings, but to build people.” He said that houses of worship are where people learn about Jesus Christ and that they are children of a loving Father in heaven. He thanked the members of other faiths for participating, pointing out that they and their LDS neighbors shared common goals about improving their communities. He said they could count on members of the Church to be people of honor, integrity and honesty who care about raising good families and being good citizens.
President Nelson likewise noted the commonalities among the audience despite doctrinal differences, saying, “We are His children, made in His image.” As such, he said, individuals have the “privilege to sojourn on planet Earth.”
He discussed the purpose of dedicating meetinghouses and temples, explaining how in Old Testament times the Lord accepted such houses of worship when the people kept the commandments.
In the dedicatory prayer, President Nelson thanked the Lord for many specific blessings, promising that the Atonement of Jesus Christ would be proclaimed in the meetinghouse and that people of many nations would learn the doctrine of God.
He dedicated every part of the building for the Lord’s holy purposes, praying it would be a sanctuary, and a warm and welcome refuge for His children of all walks of life. Further, it would become a light upon a hill, protected from evil and violence, and a place where all who entered would feel peace, reverence, respect and admiration.
The new meetinghouse is located at 522 Seventh Street, SE, Washington, D.C.