The Rev. Roger J. Gench, pastor of a Bolton Hill Presbyterian church and a leading social activist in Baltimore for a dozen years, plans to leave next month to become senior pastor of a historic Washington church attended by four presidents.
Gench, pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church since 1990, has accepted the call to become senior pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, two blocks northeast of the White House.
After considering the move for eight months, Gench said, he "came to a determination that this was not only a good move, but it was what God was calling me to do."
"The hard part is leaving a church where I'm happy," he said. "This is a great church."
A dozen years ago, Brown Memorial's activist congregation was searching for a pastor who would help it reflect on the religious motivation for pursuing social causes. The members chose Gench, a minister with a doctorate in theological ethics who loved the world of ideas and yearned to explore them in a life of academia.
The relationship transformed them both.
"The longer I stayed, the clearer my vocation became," said Gench, 50. "It was to be a theologian in the trenches."
During Gench's tenure, Brown Memorial has joined other churches in fighting for a living wage for low-income workers, and it started a tutoring program for inner-city children. And it became a More Light Congregation, one of a handful of Presbyterian churches in the area that voted to openly welcome gays.
"That witness has been invaluable in terms of affirming full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people," said the Rev. Donald E. Stroud, Baltimore director of That All May Freely Serve, a Presbyterian homosexual outreach group.
Recently, Brown Memorial has taken up the cause of residents in less affluent areas around Bolton Hill who are lobbying for a supermarket to replace a SuperFresh that closed last January.
Gench has been a driving force in Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), the city's most visible religious-based activist group, and served on the board of the Child First Authority, a BUILD initiative that offers academic, cultural and recreational activities to about 1,000 children. He led a BUILD delegation and confronted Mayor Martin O'Malley at a Board of Estimates meeting last month, demanding the city honor a $2 million commitment to the Child First Authority.
Members of Brown Memorial point to simple signs of community vitality as emblems of Gench's success. Author and historian Taylor Branch notes that when he joined the church, shortly before Gench arrived, "I think there were only two or three kids in the Sunday school."
Under Gench, Brown Memorial's Sunday school enrollment has swelled to more than 50 children.
"That's a pretty strong tribute to him," Branch said.
The church Gench is going to, New York Avenue Presbyterian, was once known as a church of presidents; John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Dwight D. Eisenhower worshipped there. These days, the congregation is smaller and similar in outlook to Brown Memorial. "It's not a church of presidents anymore. But it's a church of feisty people who want to do things," he said.
The new assignment also will mean a shorter commute for his wife, the Rev. Frances Taylor Gench, who teaches New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va.
"It's an intriguing setting to do theology, two blocks from the White House," Gench said. "I don't know what that means yet. But I have to admit, it's a fairly compelling vision."