WASHINGTON (BP)–The congregation meeting at bustling Union Station doesn’t look like a conventional church.
It gathers in a movie complex owned by the AMC Theater chain; favors progressive, upbeat music; and illustrates Scripture lessons with video clips. It also has a sizable minority (an estimated 30 percent) of African Americans and Asians among the 250 attending on Sunday mornings.
Although National Community Church attracts many young professionals working on Capitol Hill, about a dozen homeless people also attend. On New Year’s Eve, one of them read a letter of thanks for the church’s donation of a washing machine to the city’s largest homeless shelter.
National Community’s most famous member is Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft. Although sometimes absent during last year’s difficult campaign season, he was among a core group of about two dozen who helped form the five-year-old church, which initially met in a public school.
Despite its unorthodox worship style, the Assemblies of God-affiliated congregation embraces the Bible as God’s inspired Word, salvation through Christ alone and a final judgment.
It has steadily grown since its formation and plans to expand to two services on Feb. 4.
“I’ve never gone to a church before that doesn’t meet in a church,” Ashcroft said. “It’s very successful. A lot of young people are there, by the carloads. It’s almost like a college church when schools are in session.”
“We’re about 90 percent ‘Gen X-ers’ and 80 percent singles,” added senior pastor Mark Batterson, a 31-year-old Chicago native who had never filled a pulpit before. “It’s great we have a few gray hairs in there like the senator, but we’re primarily reaching kind of a younger group.
“One of the neat things for me about pastoring the church is every Sunday we’ll have ‘up and outers,’ people who in really powerful positions to influence a lot of people, and we’ll have people who are homeless. It’s a fun mix.”
Ashcroft’s participation in this nontraditional congregation also puts him in a different light than cast by those who have emerged as critics since his nomination by President-elect George Bush as attorney general.
As the year began, civil rights groups announced a campaign to overturn his nomination, calling on senators to abandon the tradition of supporting former colleagues.
One of their primary criticisms is Ashcroft’s role in defeating the nomination of black Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White to a federal court. The ex-senator has countered that he supported 23 of 26 nominations of African American judges during his term.
Among others voicing opposition are Planned Parenthood, upset by Ashcroft’s pro-life views, and People for the American Way, whose president said the nominee has a poor record on civil rights and liberties.
The furor sparked by the appointment has prompted the American Family Association to issue a call for supporters to contact their senators to ask them to vote in favor of Ashcroft.
Batterson said the controversy stems from critics trying to lift a particular quote out of context or misconstrue a particular position because they disagree with his political views.
Calling him one of the most genuine people he has ever met, the pastor said Ashcroft’s plainspoken beliefs are unlike many politicians concerned with being politically correct.
“To some degree we all need to be diplomatic in a sense,” Batterson said. “We’re Christ’s ambassadors and I think that calls for us to understand the culture we’re in and to be sensitive. But I think he believes in the right to life and that’s something he’s going to stand up for. People who don’t believe in that are going to attack him for that.”
However, the criticism doesn’t appear to upset Ashcroft himself, a veteran of gubernatorial and other statewide campaigns in Missouri — and the son of a pastor — who said he doesn’t worry about what newspapers or other publications say about him.
“I have a phrase I’ve sort of lived by in politics,” Ashcroft said. “There are only two things said about public officials. Their enemies say things that are too bad and their friends say things that are too good. And if the public official believes either one, too bad.
“I want to have a yardstick for my life as a measuring device for what my conduct ought to be, something that’s above and beyond newspapers. So I want to have an eternal standard to which I compare myself and against which I measure myself. Frankly, those things don’t bother me.”
Batterson, who met Ashcroft through a mutual friend, said the former Missouri governor and senator matches his words with actions. The pastor got to know him by regularly attending morning devotionals at his Senate office.
The fact that Ashcroft made those a daily practice in spite of his hectic schedule shows that he has his priorities straight, Batterson said, adding that he believes the attorney general nominee will prove to be an excellent member of the Cabinet.
“The news media picked up on it when they carried the press conference when he was announced as the nominee,” Batterson said. “The word ‘integrity’ was repeated numerous times.
“You hate to use a word too often because it’s overkill, but I just think he’s a person of integrity. You can’t go wrong with a person of integrity in that kind of position.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: NATIONAL COMMUNITY CHURCH.