At Union Seminary in 1998, the Rev. Anthony Lee helped lead a worship service on World AIDS Day. Tony (as he was called back then) described the pressures of violence and poverty, along with AIDS, in his African-American community in Washington, D.C., and called for a holistic medical, social and spiritual cure.
Today, Lee is back in the D.C. area as the founding pastor of a thriving church called Community of Hope, located in Prince George’s County. He is again working in a largely African-American community that suffers from rates of HIV/AIDS similar to some countries in Africa.
Nearly half of the 1 million people in the United States infected with HIV are black men, women and children — even though African Americans make up just 12.6 percent of the population.
Lee is on the AIDS working group for the Prince George’s County Executive Health Commission, but his most powerful, effective and radically spiritual work happens within the context of his church.
Four times a year, Lee steps onto the pulpit and gets tested for HIV in front of his entire congregation. It is just one of the ways that Community Of Hope is a place of healing, and Lee offers a model of ministry that every church can learn from.
How long has Community of Hope been around, and who are the people who worship there?
Community of Hope started six years ago in a night club right on the D.C.-Prince George’s border, in an area with some of the worst statistics around violence, schools and HIV/AIDS. We felt that the church was at its best when needs were at their most.
We have a range of folks who are part of the church, including people in great need, working-class, as well as the black intelligentsia. We have people working on their GEDs and we also have a heap of people with Ph.Ds. Everyone is welcome. Our tag line is: We don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, who you did it with. We don’t care if you did it last night, or woke up doing it this morning. You are in the right place in the right time to become all that God has called you to become.
Am I right in remembering that the night club was a strip club?
Yeah, the club had strip nights.
And so you would take down the poles and put up pews? How did that work?
[Laughs] We had folding chairs. The funny thing is that we brought in our own sound system because we didn’t think their sound system was strong enough. We would put a white sheet over the alcohol, but we couldn’t cover up everything, so the vodka sign would be glowing during the service. And we would have church right there.
We weren’t intending to start the church in a club, but the deal we had for somewhere else fell through. I was disappointed, but my father in ministry, the Rev. Dr. Granger Browning, was excited.
Rev. Browning told me: “Tony, you don’t understand, there are going to to be two groups of people who say the same sentence when you start the church. The ‘super holy’ people are going to question, “What kind of church would start in a nightclub?” But the people who need to come to church are going say, “Wow, what kind of church would start in a nightclub?”
Read the rest of this engaging conversation here.
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