The History of Gethsemane Baptist Church

In the year 1912, on New Hampshire Avenue between Washington Circle and Eye Street, Northwest, Washington, DC, there stood, sandwiched between two modern and improved dwelling houses, a humble one-story frame building. This little building seemed unimportant and had attached to it no particular significance known to the general public. But a young licensed Baptist minister, Rev. James Thomas Harvey, who had discovered the need of a Baptist church in his community, had surveyed the field for a possible fulfillment of that need, saw this little frame building and in it, the possibilities of a first step towards his cherished goal.

Rev. Harvey assembled nine believers in the vision God had given him in the home of Mrs. Mary Washington on 21st Street between G and H Streets, Northwest. The nine persons present were: Mrs. Mary Washington, Mr. Alexander Johnson, Mrs. Mary Johnson, Mrs. Rosa Nelson, Mr. Ragland, Mrs. Bowman, Mr. John Moore, Mr. Matthews and Mrs. Hattie Watkins. The small group, with Rev. Harvey presiding, engaged in a warm Prayer and Praise Service and proceeded with deliberations in which the Gethsemane Baptist Church was to be organized.

However, when Rev. Harvey had formulated his plans and was ready to proceed with the organization of the church, he found that a Methodist minister had gathered a small group and was worshipping in the little building which he had planned to use. Although Rev. Harvey and the Methodist minister were inexperienced, they became friendly. Both wanted to use the building for their denominations. Both were zealous and wanted to be fair with each other. Eventually, in order to settle the matter, they decided to hold services on a given Sunday. The Methodist minister’s service would be held in the morning and Rev. Harvey’s service would be held at night. It was agreed that either minister would yield to the one holding the more effective service. The text used by the Methodist minister at the morning service is not known, but the text used by Rev. Harvey that night was: “One Lord, one faith, and one baptism.”

It was readily agreed by all in attendance that Rev. Harvey delivered the more effective sermon and that his service was the more impressive. Thereupon, the Methodist minister withdrew, leaving the building to be used by the church which Rev. Harvey was to organize.

Thus, on August 12, 1912, the Gethsemane Baptist Church was born in a Prayer and Praise Service—a service still attended by, and still dear to the heart of, the members. The nine charter members and Rev. Harvey have all passed on to their reward but they bequeathed to the church their deep spirit and love for Prayer Meetings. Following its organization, other meetings of the newly-created church were held in the frame dwelling house on New Hampshire Avenue. During the same year, the church was incorporated under the name Gethsemane Baptist Church of Washington, DC.

The Harvey Administration

The Rev. James Thomas Harvey, born in Caroline County, Virginia on August 1873. He attended the elementary schools there and worked on the farm.   Rev. Harvey came to Washington, DC in 1901 soon after his marriage to Lucille Tate. They joined the Mount Airy Baptist Church where he served on the Deacon Board for several years. It was from the office of a deacon that he was exalted to the higher office of the gospel ministry.

From the time Rev. Harvey was inspired to preach, he had a strong ambition to organize a church. Convinced he was surely called of God; his works were proven beyond contradiction. But without a higher education, as many others before and since his day, he was somewhat handicapped in his ministry. He also lacked sufficient funds with which to execute the program which he had planned. For sympathy and help he turned to several of his ministerial brethren, telling them of his intentions but received little or no encouragement from them. He was, however, a man of strong character, courage, and determination.

The year 1913 marked only the beginning of a series of hard struggles and dark days which, interspersed with little sunshine, were to continue for Rev. Harvey throughout his 29 years as pastor. Financially, the odds were against his little church, but in and through it all, he displayed an indomitable spirit and a faith in God that would not shrink. His untiring efforts were not in vain for the church began to grow spiritually, numerically and financially. People from far and near began to visit Gethsemane to hear its pastor preach and sing. By this time Rev. Harvey was considered one of the finest spiritual ministers in the city and church-goers loved the fervor and liveliness of the services at Gethsemane.

Rev. Harvey did not face his tasks alone and unassisted. Aside from the faithful members of his church, his devoted wife, Mrs. Lucille Tate Harvey, stood in the background giving him much-needed encouragement and financial support. With two young daughters, Louise and Beatrice, demanding their mother’s care, Mrs. Harvey still found time to work by the side of her husband in the work of the church.

The growth of the church, to say the least, was phenomenal. The first nine members proved to be very faithful. They, along with their pastor, sacrificed both their time and finances for the maintenance of their church. The pastor received no salary and they kept all of their financial obligations current.   The membership had enjoyed an appreciable increase and the church began to develop a more systematic organization. Mrs. Ida Maple became the first church clerk and Mr. Isom Newton was the first chairman of the Trustee Board. The first ushers were Lloyd and George Hollis along with William Beck.

It is significant that as a manual laborer, Rev. Harvey was a scaffold-builder. He helped to build the scaffold from under which the Union Station in Washington, DC was erected.

The same spirit of determination that motivated Rev. Harvey as a builder of material things had its exact counterpart in the spirit which motivated him as a religious builder. He allowed no wrongs done to him to cause embitterment or despair and no obstacles before him to cause resignation or retreat. When he realized that his venture with Gethsemane required of him a better literary and theological training, he took a correspondence course from the Afro Correspondence School in Washington and he attended the Freylin Huysen University.

In recognition of the rapid progress made by the young Gethsemane Church and in response to its request, on April 2, 1913, the Mount Airy Baptist Church called an Ordination Council and publicly ordained Rev. Harvey that he might fully perform his duties as pastor of the church. Following his ordination, Rev. Harvey gave himself wholly to the task of making Gethsemane one of Washington’s outstanding churches.

Within ten years the little structure on New Hampshire Avenue no longer provided adequate quarters for the large congregation and the expanding programs of the church. The pastor then decided that the time had come for the church to look around for an adequate and permanent place to worship. After some consideration by the official staff, two lots, located on 21st Street between L and M Streets, Northwest, were purchased at a cost of $2,850. Plans were formulated to erect a new edifice when the officers discovered that a church of another denomination on 22nd Street and Virginia Avenue, Northwest, had been vacated and was for sale. The church agreed to pay $45,000 plus interest for the property and the deal was closed early in the spring of 1922. The two lots on 21st Street and $10,000 in cash were given as the initial payment. On April 18, 1922, Gethsemane moved into its new home. By this time, the membership had grown to several hundreds.

The church did a splendid work and kept up with all its obligations until 1930, when the great economic depression came upon the world. Gethsemane was hard hit and soon became unable to meet its obligations.   For several years thereafter, only the interest on Gethsemane’s debt could be paid, leaving the principal untouched. Many of the members became discouraged and it is believed that their discouragement helped to weaken their leader physically. It was during this period that Rev. Harvey became quite sick with an illness that was to affect him permanently. For a few years the church seemed not to prosper at all and these were dark years for Gethsemane. The Trust Company holding the mortgage, seeing that the church was struggling and unable to meet the required payments, extended leniency, reducing both the annual payments and the interest on the unpaid balance. This gesture gave the church a new inspiration. Members felt encouraged and decided to work to liquidate the debt.

Though the church remained stable over the next three or four years, the condition of Rev. Harvey’s health gradually declined. In spite of his failing health, he continued to lift the spirit of the members. However, on May 1, 1941, Rev. Harvey succumbed to his illness. He was laid to rest on May 6, 1941 in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery.   The church was in an official period of mourning for six months which ended November 30, 1941. The first Sunday in May was designated as Founders’ Day and it is still observed today.

At the time of Rev. Harvey’s demise, the church was without an assistant or acting pastor. All of the sons of the church were engaged as pastors or in other ministerial services. Thus, it pleased the church to accept and follow the leadership of Deacon Richard J. Lynch who was the chairman of the Deacon Board at the time.   As Deacon Lynch united with the church in 1913, he witnessed and shared in Gethsemane’s development from its formative period to the time of the pastor’s passing. Having served as Chairman of the Deacon Board for more than twelve years, he took the helm and led the church during this period without a pastor.

Being without a pastor was both a new experience and a great task for the church.   The membership became very concerned with the matter of paying off their debt and being void of a pastor.   The first Pulpit Committee was formed after the mourning period ended. The committee consisted of 3 Deacons, 3 Trustees and one member each from the Deaconess Board, the Usher Board, the Ladies’ Auxiliary, the Senior Choir and a layman. The committee members were: Deacons Richard J. Lynch, Chairman, F. M. Ellis, W. J. Roane; Trustees John H. Watson, Walter Brown and John D. Hunter; Deaconess Isabel Goodwin, Sisters Bertha Coleman and Naomi O. Talbert and Mr. William J. Oliphant. This committee, approved by the church, proceeded with its work, always prayerful that God would give to the church a wise leader.

In the fall of 1942, the Pulpit Committee submitted to the church several names for consideration. From the names submitted, Rev. James W. Parrish, a son of Gethsemane, who at the time was the Pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was elected as pastor of the church. After giving serious and lengthy consideration to the call, Rev. Parrish declined to accept. This was a sharp disappointment to the church, as the majority of the members believed that he would accept the pastorate of the church of his childhood.

The Hickerson Administration

January, 1943, the church approved a second Pulpit Committee. This committee consisted of 5 members, with Deacon Richard Lynch as the chair. In March, Rev. Carl Q. Hickerson, Sr., a young minister from Omaha, Nebraska, was visiting in Washington, DC. He was currently serving as the Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Omaha. Learning that this dynamic preacher was in the area, members of the Pulpit Committee arranged for him to preach at Gethsemane on Sunday, March 7.

The church had instructed the Pulpit Committee to seek a young man, of good general appearance, educated, of reasonable experience, an able speaker and of good Christian character as the pastor for Gethsemane. As the Pulpit Committee and the church surmised that Rev. Hickerson possessed these qualifications, on March 26, 1943, by unanimous vote, a call was extended to him.   On March 31st, a letter was received from Rev. Hickerson stating that he would visit Gethsemane in April to answer the call. Accordingly, he was present on the second and third Sundays, April 11th and April 18th. To the delight of the church, Rev. Hickerson accepted the call.

To prepare for Rev. Hickerson and his family—his wife, Mrs. Murphy Hickerson and five children—the church recognized the need for a parsonage. A home was found and purchased by the church. It was located at 1234 G Street, Northeast. In August, 1943, Rev. Hickerson and his family arrived in Washington, DC to take over the leadership of Gethsemane Baptist Church. He was welcomed with outstretched arms by his new flock. Later, the church purchased another parsonage at 3640 New Hampshire Avenue, Northwest, to house the Hickerson family.

When Rev. Hickerson became Pastor, the church still owed $18,000 on its mortgage. Under Rev. Hickerson’s leadership, the church raised enough to pay off the mortgage within a year of his tenure, around April 10, 1944. A grand “Mortgage Burning” celebration was held in conjunction with the 32nd anniversary of the church and the first anniversary of Rev. Hickerson.

Rev. Hickerson’s vision for Gethsemane helped to organize the growing church. He organized the church into twelve units. The function of the units was to organize the membership into smaller groups for fellowship as well as to assist with fundraising efforts.   Initially, each unit was responsible for raising funds to make one monthly mortgage payment. In later years, as the units continued to raise money for the church, they enjoyed the challenge of being the unit to raise the most money. At the Units’ Anniversary Dinner in November of each year, members anxiously awaited the Roll Call of units and the amounts raised for the whole year. It was a fun-spirited competition.

Other auxiliaries organized by Rev. Hickerson were the Missionary Society, the Red Circle Girls and Choir Number One. Rev. Hickerson resigned in the fall of 1951 after 8 years of faithful and dedicated service.   For a number of years, Rev. Hickerson was remembered with the Annual Hickerson Day observance.

The Yancey Administration

Following Rev. Hickerson’s resignation, Deacon Lynch resumed the leadership of the church. On February 20, 1953, Rev. George R. Yancey was unanimously chosen as the third pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church. Rev. Yancey, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, was an educator and world traveler. He was a graduate of Virginia Union University. He was married to Mrs. Ethel B. Yancey and had one son, Dr. George Melvin Yancey.   Rev. Yancey accepted the call on March 20, 1953, assuming the leadership of the church on June 21, 1953.

Rev. Yancey created a scholarship fund to assist the young people of Gethsemane in their efforts to achieve higher education.   He also organized the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Mother’s Club, Dad’s Club, Progressive Club, Laymen’s Club, Tither’s Club and the Ever-Ready Club. One of the most significant contributions to the community was the establishment of the Gethsemane Baptist Church Child Care Center. In December 1954, the Child Care Center was dedicated and began its operation at 3830 Georgia Avenue, Northwest. The Child Care Center remains in operation today, renamed the Ethel B. Yancey Child Development Center. The Child Care Center was the first church-based African-American child care center in Washington, DC.

Urban reconstruction in Washington, DC created a means for Gethsemane to move from its home in Foggy Bottom to the Petworth neighborhood. In 1955, the 22nd and Virginia Avenue edifice was sold for $85,000. The congregation remained there, rent-free, until March 1959 when it moved to their Child Care Center on Georgia Avenue in upper Northwest. Later, two acres of land on the corner of Georgia Avenue and Randolph Street were purchased for $125,000 for the purpose of erecting a new edifice. The parsonage at 1234 G Street was sold and the proceeds were applied toward the new site.

In a manner similar to what had happened in 1922 when Rev. Harvey sought to build a new edifice, Gethsemane learned that the Lewis Memorial United Methodist Church at 5119 4th Street, Northwest, not far from the Georgia Avenue location, was for sale. It was a large, beautiful edifice on the corner of 4th and Hamilton Streets. The church voted to purchase this building. In May 1961, the purchase was made and, simultaneously, the property on Georgia Avenue was sold.

On June 4, 1961, Gethsemane moved into its new and present, home. It was a grand occasion and was celebrated with 40 nights of services. The highlight was the motorcade from Georgia Avenue to Kansas Avenue on that Sunday morning. The Grand March into the sanctuary was led by Deacon Richard J. Lynch.   The formal occupation of the new edifice also marked the 49th anniversary celebration of the church and the 8th anniversary of Rev. George R. Yancey as Pastor.

The membership at Gethsemane grew mightily as young African-American families moved into the surrounding community. To meet the needs of the expanding membership, Rev. Yancey expanded the Unit structure and formed Unit 13, consisting primarily of the youth and young adults of the church. He also established the Young Adult Choir (later renamed the G. R. Yancey Ensemble). The Department of Christian Education was created along with The Gethsemane Sentinel, the official organ of the church. As a means of community outreach, Gethsemane broadcast on the radio airwaves of WUST (1260 AM) the 2nd Sunday of every month for about 20 years, as the “Voices from the Garden” program. In 1979, he formulated the first Board of Christian Education.

Although Rev. Yancey had been a strong supporter of the New England Baptist Convention, he established membership with the newly organized Progressive National Baptist Convention in its formative year, 1961. The church leadership was able to form ties with and become part of the leadership of the Convention. In addition, he introduced the church to international fellowship with the World Baptist Alliance. In 1976, he took a delegation to Helsinki, Finland for their annual meeting. During that trip he and the delegates spent an extra week following the Convention touring some of the Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden with a side trip to Russia.

In April 1980, Rev. Yancey submitted his resignation as pastor due to ill health. He was honored as Pastor Emeritus until his death on October 20, 1982.

The Bennett Administration

For the third time in Gethsemane’s history, Deacon Richard J. Lynch assumed leadership of the church. Still forward-thinking, Rev. Yancey established a Pulpit Committee to search for his successor prior to his retirement.   On February 29, 1981, Dr. Leonard Charles Bennett, pastor of United Missionary Baptist Church in Middletown, Ohio, was unanimously called to become the 4th pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church. Dr. Bennett received his master’s and doctorate from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. He assumed leadership of Gethsemane in April 1981 when he arrived in Washington with his wife, Dr. Emyrtle Bennett and their three young children, including a newborn son.

Dr. Bennett sought to create new programs for the youth of the church. The Junior Choir was recreated as the Young People’s Choir for the youth and he established the Children’s Choir for children ages 4-9. He incorporated the Children’s Sermon, a Biblical message on children’s level during the morning worship service. Additionally, the Children’s Church was formed. Other youth programs included the 4‑H Club whose drill team was featured in numerous city-wide parades. He also established the Gethsemane Christian School which served the community for a few years. The Gethsemane Baptist Church Federal Credit Union was chartered under his leadership. In addition, Dr. Bennett instituted the Women’s Ministry and other Ministries and Commissions. He ordained the first female minister at Gethsemane (Rev. Carolyn Graham), appointed the first female Lay Pastor (Trustee Dorothy Reid for Unit 6) and installed the first female Chairperson of the Board of Trustees (Trustee Winona Varnon).

During his tenure, Dr. Bennett recognized the faithful service of three long-tenured officers and elevated them to Emeritus status: Deacon Richard J. Lynch (Chairman Emeritus), Deaconess Isabel Goodwin (President Emeritus), and Trustee Emeritus Samuel Stroman. Deacon Lynch passed on October 14, 1984. He had served as a Deacon for 72 years and was Chairman for almost 60 years. All three Emeritus officers transitioned to their heavenly reward while Dr. Bennett was pastor. In February 1996, Dr. L. Charles Bennett resigned as pastor of Gethsemane.

The Lee Administration

For the first time that Gethsemane was without a pastor, it was also without Deacon Lynch as the Chairman of the Deacon Board. Deacon Leonard R. Sanders, Jr. was the Chairman at that time. Under his leadership Gethsemane approved Rev. Trent E. Davis as the Interim Pastor. A Pulpit Committee was selected and in November, 1997, Dr. Kenneth E. Lee was unanimously voted as the 5th Pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church. He accepted the call and assumed the leadership on January 1, 1998.

Dr. Lee was a native Washingtonian who grew up as a member of the Isle of Patmos Baptist Church, where his father served as pastor. At the time of his call, Dr. Lee was the Pastor of Greater Union First Baptist Church in Deland, Florida. He received his Doctor of Divinity degree from Virginia Union University.

Dr. Lee was a dynamic preacher whose desire was for each member to leave church on Sunday mornings having had a spirit-filled “worship experience”. Dr. Lee implemented the mid-week Hour of Power service, combining the Prayer and Praise service with Bible Study. He engaged the young adults in the church by forming the Young Adult Bible Study, the Young Adult Usher Board and the Angelic Voices choir. Additionally, as the Internet and the World Wide Web embarked upon the world, he assisted in the development of the first website for the church.

Like Rev. Yancey and Dr. Bennett, Dr. Lee strived to create spiritual development for the youth of the church. He established a Youth Department. He also re-established ties with the New England Baptist Convention and sent many youth each year to their annual meetings. He encouraged the youth of the church to participate in the Youth auxiliary of the Baptist Convention of DC and Vicinity and the city-wide District Federation of Young People. Dr. Lee served Gethsemane until June 30, 2000.

A New Search

As was the tradition, a Pulpit Committee was formed in September 2000 to search for a new pastor. This last Pulpit Committee consisted of representatives from the following auxiliaries of the church: Deacons (2); Deaconess (2), Trustees (2); Missions Ministry (2); Christian Education (2); and Members-at-large (3). The committee members were: Deacon Robert J. Knox; Chairman, Deacon James McCall; Deaconess Verna Walker; Deaconess Sheryl Witherspoon; Trustee Bernice Watson; Trustee Robert Thomas; Deaconess Janice Parker Watson; Deaconess Katie Gaskins; Trustee Diane Baxter; Deacon Collel McLeod, Jr.; Mrs. Ann Mason; Mrs. Cynthia Bruton; and Mrs. Deloris Ramsey-Jordan.

Concurrently, Deacon George Nelson became the Chairman of the Deacon Board. Under his leadership, Rev. Moses L. Jackson, Jr., Pastor Emeritus of Beulah Baptist Church, was asked to serve as the Interim Pastor. He served faithfully until August 2001, when he resigned due to ill health. Rev. Jackson passed on January 13, 2002. Rev. Frank Coaxum, from Stafford, Virginia, also served as Interim Pastor from September 2001 to July 2002. By this time, the Pulpit Committee was ready to present their candidates for pastor.

As the Committee prepared to present three candidates, two of them were called to other churches in Washington. Gethsemane members voted to not call the remaining candidate, so the Pulpit Committee continued its search. Truly God was working in the midst of us and in February 2003, the membership voted to call Rev. Khalfani Drummer as its pastor. Rev. Drummer answered the call in February 2003, and assumed the leadership of the church on Palm Sunday, April 13, 2003, as the 6th and current pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church.

The Drummer Administration

Rev. Drummer, a native of San Francisco, California, was serving as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Paschal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He arrived with his family, First Lady Deborah Drummer and their young sons, Malachi and Caleb.   Rev. Drummer was a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. He also received a Juris Doctorate degree from the Howard University School of Law and he earned a Master of Divinity degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Rev. Drummer brought new ministries to the church (the Married Couples Ministry, Caleb and Hadassah Academy, Liturgical Dance Ministry). He transitioned Gethsemane from a fundraising church to a tithing church. In 2006, the church purchased the property next door, 5117 4th Street for $350,000. Also under Rev. Drummer’s leadership, the edifice at 4th and Hamilton Streets underwent renovation for the first time since its purchase in 1961. Completed renovations include an enlarged kitchen, additional classrooms, bathrooms, an elevator, closed circuit television, beautiful new doors and an improved audio system with CD and DVD recording capabilities. A parking lot was created with space for 20 cars and it was dedicated in May 2011. The approximate cost of all of the renovations was $1,800,000.

Gethsemane is utilizing this heavy computer/Internet era to its advantage. Rev. Drummer enhanced the church website that was initially constructed under Rev. Lee. With his leadership, Gethsemane is also accessible on Facebook and many members are considered his “friends” in cyberspace. Rev. Drummer has utilized the computer and other technology systems to meet the spiritual needs of the congregation. He was able to teach Bible Study while in South Africa using Skype. When winter weather prevented members from getting to the church, he convened a church service by way of a conference call.

Rev. Drummer is a prolific preacher, teacher and singer who encouraged Bible Study through Sunday School and weekly Bible Study. Nearly 100 members regularly attend the Wednesday night Bible Study and in 2012 a Tuesday afternoon class was instituted which is also well-attended. In 2013, Rev. Drummer celebrated 10 years as Pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church. His vision includes additional renovations with the enlargement of the sanctuary and the development of a Family Life Center for community programs and outreach.

Gethsemane began as a church within a community. Members lived within walking distance of the church. Rev. Harvey was well known throughout the community and was well respected by non-members in the neighborhood. As he walked from the church to home, everyone knew who he was. Twenty years after Rev. Harvey’s death, Gethsemane moved to its present community. The church again consumed its neighborhood. The youth of Gethsemane went to school together and worshiped together, much like they did when Gethsemane was in Foggy Bottom. They were unsung heroes as they brought school friends and their families into the church.

However, in present day the majority of the members do not live in the immediate area. Nonetheless, Rev. Drummer is as well known to the Petworth community as Rev. Harvey was to the Foggy Bottom community. Rev. Harvey likely saw members on a daily basis simply by walking down the street. Rev. Drummer maintains contact with members by using social media, texting, email, cell phones and he attends neighborhood community meetings.

Recent Messages

Calendar Events

Pastor’s Bible Study

August 9, 2017 – November 23, 2017
7:00 PM

Come join Pastor Drummer for Bible Study every Wednesday at 7:00pm.  

Noon Day Prayer

September 26, 2017 – October 17, 2017

Come prayer with us Every Tuesday   (Weather permitting)