A Place for Everyone
In the tight-knit community of Brookmont in Bethesda, the church is the neighborhood gathering spot
Late on a crisp Sunday afternoon in early November, the social hall at Brookmont Church slowly fills with neighbors for the annual St. Martin’s Lantern Walk. While the adults chat with one another, children use markers to decorate white paper bags that will soon be glowing with electric tea candles.
In the large room on the ground floor, everyone gathers to hear Roxanne Schueller, the church’s celebrant, read a poem about the legend of the compassionate St. Martin. At the point when he gives half of his cloak to a beggar in need, Schueller dramatically rips her long red cape (held together by Velcro) in two. “Compassion is that feeling of a flutter in your heart or a tear in your eye when you see something happen to somebody and you want to help,” she explains before the residents begin their procession through the neighborhood, which darkened early with the recent ending of daylight saving time. “The reason we take the lights all around Brookmont is we are thinking about bringing love, compassion and acts of kindness—all those good things—to our neighbors, our families and the world,” Schueller says.
This kind of message is woven throughout events held at the community church in Brookmont, a tight-knit neighborhood of about 200 homes off MacArthur Boulevard, just above the C&O Canal and the Potomac River in Bethesda. The Brookmont Baptist Church was built in 1941 on Virginia Place at the corner of Broad Street. In the early 1980s, what remained of the congregation decided to close its doors due to dwindling participation. A Brookmont resident had the enterprising idea to revitalize the church as a congregation open to all faiths, including nonbelievers. So immediately after Brookmont Baptist Church closed, a new board was named, and the church began a new life structured as a neighborhood village church where families take turns organizing activities. The church building, with an attached parsonage (which is rented out), is owned by a corporation controlled by members of the church.
There are other nondenominational churches in the county, but Brookmont is unusual in that it encompasses so many religious traditions under one roof. “The neighborhood and small-town feel is very special here. People know each other and care about each other,” says Adrienne Hand, co-chair of the church’s board of trustees and a longtime Brookmont resident. “The church has grown organically. People are looking for fresh ways to be in community and to be spiritual.”
Today, the church hosts community activities, weekly interfaith services on Sunday evenings and a monthly Sunday morning family service. “It’s a sacred space where people are comfortable,” says Schueller, of Rockville, who is Jewish and has led the congregation since 2011.
The services often have themes and involve storytelling, prayer, scripture readings, music, mindfulness and sometimes dance. There is a Christmas Eve pageant, complete with angels and the Holy Family, and special services around Thanksgiving, Passover and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The church also is used for weddings, memorial services and bar and bat mitzvahs.
The inclusive nature of the church is appealing to couples like Amy Shah and Sriram Rajan, who moved to Brookmont in 2017 and attend the family service with their 4-year-old son, Aarav. “The focus is on things that are common to all religions—kindness and community,” says Shah, who is Jain; her husband is Hindu. “It’s a place to come together around common values.”
Like an old-fashioned hub in the center of a small town, Brookmont Church has been a refuge for people at times of crisis. After the protests and shooting in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, an impromptu service of prayer and singing was held in the chapel, featuring a song written by a Brookmont resident.
Beyond worship, neighbors come to socialize, learn and do good works. On Friday nights in the summer, there are food trucks and picnics on the lawn. About once a month, the “Brookmont Café” brings people together for a potluck, and residents share their expertise on topics such as ornithology, meditation and art. The church sponsors walks to benefit charities, drives for shoes, food and clothing, and a “giving tree” for the donation of Christmas gifts to children in need.
The church is also home to the Brookmont Children’s Program, a small preschool, and space is rented out for tai chi classes, massage therapy and special parties to help generate income. However, the church stays afloat mainly because of the response of residents to an annual fundraising letter. “The neighbors love this church … they like the simplicity of it,” says Jenn Pellegrini, the other co-chair of the board of trustees. “They all want to keep it maintained, so we have no problem getting money from our neighbors.”
Louisa Jagger has lived in the adjacent parsonage for seven years, helping keep an eye on the property and tending to its garden of native plants. “Before I came here, I hated churches because institutional churches so often can go off the wrong way and people can be very judgmental,” she says. “Here, I’ve never seen that. It’s a completely different way of celebrating. Everyone is welcome …The only thing they don’t let in the door is hatred.”
As those gathered for the November celebration leave the church, adults form an aisle with strings of white lights to corral the children as they walk with the lanterns. Thirteen-year-old Douglas Holmberg plays Irish folk tunes on his violin as the group walks down Broad Street along the grassy median known as “the village green.” The walkers stop under a streetlamp to sing “This Little Light of Mine,” with a verse adapted for the occasion: “Gonna bring that good, to my neighborhood. I’m gonna let it shine. …Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”