The Potter’s House has been in D.C. for over five decades. Have you heard of it? If you haven’t, you’re not alone. I’ve been here for 12 years and even when I lived on Columbia Road–where it is located– I wasn’t aware of its existence. I finally noticed it two weeks ago, when I was taking a walk. It looked like a small, specialty bookstore and that was intriguing enough. When I tried to check out its hours of operation, I saw something surprising in small letters, on a weathered sign. On Tuesdays, a group meets there to discuss “Racial Reconciliation” at 12:30 pm. What kind of bookstore was this? Well, it turns out– it’s a unique one:
Potter’s House Books offers several thousand titles focusing primarily on spirituality and social justice…In addition to the Bookstore, the Potter’s House also is a restaurant/coffeehouse, art gallery, worship space, and community meeting place. On Friday nights, it also is the venue for a concert series called “Sounds of Hope,” which features mainly local musicians performing for the benefit of community nonprofit groups.
“Worship space”? Was this bookstore/cafe/gallery an overtly Christian spot? Some of the Yelp reviews made it sound like it would be:
To understand The Potter’s House, you have to know that it is first and foremost a church. It is owned by Church of the Savior, the same organization that runs Columbia Road Health Services, Jubilee Jobs, the Festival Center, and Christ House. Suddenly the shabby interior with the random homeless people makes sense – this is a church living its mission to serve the poor and provide universal love to all.
This place sounded radically different from almost everywhere else I had been in the city. I called in advance to ask about the “racial reconciliation” program and I was gently corrected– it’s nothing as structured as a “program”.
There’s no topic or agenda. It’s very informal…sometimes people bring in a news item or a book they’re reading and then they’re off. There’s no way to predict how the conversation goes. The group has been meeting for years; it’s probably the most consistent discussion group we have. The Potter’s House has had a strong focus on racial reconciliation and social justice since the ’68 riots. We made a conscious decision to stay in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, to help work on these vital issues.
I showed up at 12:15pm on Tuesday; if it hadn’t been for a few crosses randomly scattered on the walls, I wouldn’t have guessed that this place had much to do with Christianity. I picked up on the “social justice” vibe within minutes of walking in– between the flyers, the heated debate a duo was having about gentrification and the books on display, that aspect of their mission was impossible to miss. Beyond that, it felt “progressive” and “conscious”, so much so that it reminded me of Northern California. I wasn’t surprised when I later learned that WPFW had recorded shows or hosted events there.
Most people were eating lunch, more than half had laptops open. A kind woman was standing by some chafing dishes which contained meatloaf and a few sides. There was a very simple salad bar and a few carafes of coffee. A menu listed sandwiches. I made myself a hot chocolate via packet and hot water, paid for it and sat down. Yes, it was a mash-up of sorts; the kind of conversations and people I’d run into in Oakland or Davis, being served home-style cooking by African-American grandmothers.
Around 12:30, people started to gather at a middle table. They were greeting each other, laughing, slapping backs. I couldn’t help but notice that the group was almost evenly divided between black and white; many of the attendees seemed to know each other. All of them were tucking into lunch. While they didn’t explicitly address race while I was there, from their rollicking conversation which spanned from Greek philosophers to whether God existed, I got the feeling that they wouldn’t mind.
It was a striking sight to behold, because unintentionally, they had seated themselves white, black, white, black. Meanwhile, a few tables away, two men who appeared to be homeless sat down. A young woman came out, greeted them and asked if they were hungry. I couldn’t hear their responses but when she walked away, one of the men got up and walked in circles around the table, speaking to himself. The other cracked open a newspaper. Next to them, a college student was immersed in her textbooks and computer. An elderly lady with a cane slowly walked up to the counter, smiled and asked what the soup of the day was. That’s when I realized what was so stunning about The Potter’s House; I had never been anywhere in this city where people from all social classes and backgrounds were mingling like this. From homeless people to a girl with a $2,000 computer, anyone could walk in and they would be welcomed.
In a city which often feels segregated, whether by choice or by history, The Potter’s House stands out for its diversity and openness. That lively group in the middle of the room did not explicitly discuss racial reconciliation that day, but the entire establishment feels like a living, thriving example of such a desirable goal. I plan on going back next Tuesday, ostensibly to report on a unique and much-needed discussion group, but I won’t mind spending time in that sweet, humble, welcoming environment, too.