In the white marble church on the corner of Massachusetts Ave and 9th street, Rev. Dr. Donna Claycomb Sokol sits in the conference room. In the midst of a busy day, she is bouncing with energy. However, her demeanor changes as she sits down and tells her Washington, D.C. story. A story with many facets that put together a puzzle of a life of a minister who first came to Washington, D.C. to work on Capitol Hill; only to return ten years later to serve in a congregation that was on the edge of collapse. She leans back slightly in the plush chair as she pauses to look around the room as she really contemplates each question asked. She plays with her blond hair as she goes back in time in her mind. Thinking about the long journey that has been her ministry. A winding road with many twists and turns. However a journey with a clear sense of vision and confidence in a call that she sticks by every day she walks into Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.
“Sticking by my convictions [is one of the hardest things].” Sokol says as she raises her hands gesturing an attitude of confidence. “I knew I was called here, right? I did not choose to come here. I knew that there was a call. A call that had taken months to articulate. But it wasn’t just a call. It was a call that came with a clear sense of guidance and vision. That I really believe was ordained by God. Continually sticking by that clear sense of vision and clear sense of call.”
Sokol’s call to ministry was not a straight path to the pulpit. She grew up in Missouri with two educator parents. Her father, who currently is a professor, once served as a dean. She had a mother who she watched growing up teach business at Williams Wood University. A college in Fulton, Missouri that she and her sister both attended. There she was on a path to law school as she earned her B.A. in Economics.
Currently, Sokol is serving her ninth year at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. It is a journey over nine years that has had it’s ups and downs. However, it is a gift Sokol is willing to take risks for.
“I really want us to be a prophetic vision for the city, Sokol says about her hope of the future of Mount Vernon Place. “What does it mean to be a prophetic witness? I mean I think it means taking risk in the name of Jesus. I think we are called to be as diverse as possible. Welcome people who might think differently than use or act differently than us.”
This call of growing deeper and outward is where Sokol now spends all her time and energy.
“I think we are called to be as deep as we can as people. So I feel like most of my…so right now I want to give a lot of my time or energy to focus on ‘how do we grow deeper?’,” Sokol asks rhetorically. “I much prefer [this Thursday small group] conversation than the one on Monday night [ at Theology on Tap]. Monday is hard for me because it feels like it just stays kind of fluffy. I like to go deeper. I do not like to gather with a group from the church without praying.”
An act of growing deeper she views as being both simple and complicated. A complex puzzle that takes many different shapes and colors and sizes to all fit together into what she sees as one beautiful picture of God’s kingdom here on earth.
“I think progressives get really caught up in ‘oh this is really great if we are welcoming the poor or welcoming the people that are pushed aside.’ But what does it also mean to welcome someone who thinks really differently than us or who will vote really different than us on Tuesday. So I think to continue to build this really diverse body that eats together at one table. That can be one body in this place in the name of God, even if they may be totally different or polar opposites on Monday morning.”
However, to fully encompass Sokol’s DC journey, one has to backtrack to when she originally moved to DC to be a White House intern. This initial road led her straight from Missouri to the nation’s capital that was it’s own right an Oz to a 21 year old college senior looking to make a difference.
A road that began on Halloween 1992 when Sokol met then First Lady Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally at Williams Wood University. As a natural born leader, Sokol was at the time Student Government President and had the privilege of introducing Mrs. Clinton. A moment that was captured with the camera and still sits proudly on a shelf in her church office.
When a thank you note from a P.O Box in Rockville arrived a few weeks later, Sokol saw an opportunity. She put together her resume and sent it off asking for an internship at the White House. A choice that landed her on a plane to work on Pennsylvania Ave during her last semester senior year. A time during her life she is extremely thankful for twenty years later.
“To be a White House intern was such a privilege.” Sokol shares with a hint of a smile. “It was before Monica Lewinsky, so I do not feel like it was quite as tainted in that way. It was an incredible privilege. I met these amazing people right off the bat who were doing amazing things or wanted to do amazing things with their lives.”
While it was a wonderful time of her early working years, it was hard work. As an intern in the scheduling office, Sokol had access to try to run into Mrs. Clinton again. A memory that she laughingly shares one Sunday during her sermon to her congregation. Even though she thinks fondly of those months interning at the White House, she also remembers how the daily life of working within politics does not always match up with that which she teaches behind that pulpit she stands at each Sunday.
“It was very fast paced [atmosphere].” Sokol says with a quieter tone. “Not always edifying in the ways I think God wants us to live, but it was an amazing experience.”
Graduating in 1994, Sokol moved on the congressional office of an Ohio representative. However when he was defeated in November of 1994, Sokol found herself in the position of many government workers in DC after an election.
An unemployment that stretched ahead for four months. A wandering and darker time where she found herself sitting many times at the bar, wondering what was next. It was during this time that she found her way back to what she deems as more solid ground.
“When I was unemployed it was a really hard time,” Sokol says as she shakes her head slightly, as if to shake away the memory. “I learned that I wanted and needed a foundation that couldn’t be taken away from me. A foundation that was much deeper than what I had in any other part of my life. And so that is when I went back to church in 1995 and got really involved almost immediately.”
In April of 1996, Sokol got invited by her then pastor to chaperone a youth group trip to New York City with youth from the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area. She saw it as an opportunity to travel for free to a city she had never been to. Freshly signed up for an LSAT course, Sokol had plans to start a new chapter with attending law school in the Fall. Picking up on an original dream from her undergraduate years.
Yet the events of that weekend played out along the lines of the old expression, “We make plans and God laughs”.
“We were on the bus getting ready to leave the city and my pastor at the time got up and offered a prayer,” Sokol says. “And in that prayer thanked God for the weekend we had had and the safety God had given us. Then said ‘God I also thank you for callings and I thank you for the ways you can use an experience like this to call people. Will you please move the people that you have called over this weekend as you discern their call.”
At the conclusion of that prayer, something hit Sokol.
“Mine was like a bolt of electricity. It was a really pivotal and defining moment.” Sokol recalls.
This moment was the beginning of her call. A shock that would change every plan Sokol had laid out for her future. She spent the rest of the bus ride back to DC asking questions about seminary, being ordained and other aspects of going into ministry. There was no prior knowledge that Sokol had to fall back on when discerning this new call. She did not even realize that seminary was another form of graduate school.
Once she returned to Washington, D.C, her winding ministry path led her to Durham, North Carolina and the collegiate halls of Duke Divinity School.
“[Seminary] was a gift. I was 25 when I went. So I was out of school for three and half years, which I was really thankful I did not go straight through as well,” Sokol says with a nod of certainty.”[I had life experience] in that I had tasted and seen a lot. Not life experience as in years of wisdom. Life experience in sowing a lot of oats and a lot of things.”
During these three years in seminary, Sokol was exposed to very different congregations that would give her skills that she would later apply in her appointment here in DC.
“I had amazing field education experiences. I did field educational experiences all three academic years and summers that I was there. So, I was in four really, really diverse places or communities. Those people and places were so formational as well.” Sokol says.
Sokol finds that her lack of knowledge in all things theological heading into seminary was a gift because it allowed her to experience a series of world renowned professors. She found appreciation in getting to experience this gift of their teaching.
In 2000, Sokol graduated from Duke University and was placed as an associate pastor, one of many, at First United Methodist Church Hendersonville, NC. A large church with a congregation of some 2000 members. It was a place she planned to stay at for several years. However, a call from Duke wound her up as the Director of Admissions at the Divinity School. It was a job that she had seen posted and thought ‘I would like to do a job like that after a few years in a local church.” It was a job that she attained sooner than a few years later.
While her flock shifted,the priority of serving the people she was assigned to did not shift.
“[I] always use to tell prospective students that my flock use to be this congregation, but I really believe that you’re my flock now.” Sokol says as she motions her hands in a circle.”That anyone who is experiencing a call or discerning a call or trying to decide if Duke is right for them-so I very much taught that as a ministry.”
In 2004 Sokol traveled to South Africa with Peter Storey, a former professor of hers at Duke who is still her mentor today. He also was a pastor who had a history of leadership in the United Methodist Church in South Africa. His list of credentials included working with Desmond Tutu, serving as prison chaplain to Nelson Mandela and a man who greatly influenced Sokol.
While working at Duke, Sokol had been ordained into the United Methodist Church. This allowed her to be appointed to a church if she ever got a call to serve in a local church. Her bishop approached her one day and described the very church that sits on the corner of Massachusetts Ave and 9th Street. This was a dying church that needed a breath of fresh air in leadership.
“That night I started to write in my journal about what I would do if I was called to this church.” Sokol shares. “I did not even know the name of it. I could not picture it. This was not an area that you would have ever gone to. This, Chinatown, was horrible when I last lived here. It was not developed yet. We would have never gone to Chinatown twenty years ago when I was living in DC.”
“I remember knowing nothing about this area but just sitting there writing about what I would do if I came here. By the end of December I had a two page vision and I said I have no idea of what this means. I sent it to David [my bishop] and said I have no idea what this means but God has not let me let go of this. This is what I feel like God has given to me.”
She entered the doors of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church as both the youngest and first woman pastor that this congregation had seen. It was congregation where the average age of the members was at eighty two and all those that sat on church committees were in their nineties. A congregation who were use to doing what they wanted, when they wanted to. A congregation that did not like the change that Sokol represented.
“I would say the first two years were awful. I mean horrible. Like hard. I mean the hardest thing I have ever done.” Sokol says as a look of the painful memory flashes across her face.
This congregation was one that was not moving forward.
“They knew more about dying and closure than about letting go and making way for new life.” Sokol says.
“From DC to my first appointment in North Carolina and Duke, I was always in place where people immediately worshipped and adored me. Worship is a strong word, but like really loved me. Like really loved me. Mount Vernon Place was the first place that people really did not want me.”
The congregation did not at all.
“They really did not want me. They knew that I represented change. That I was here to shake things up. They did everything they could to put me down. To break me down I think.”
Yet Sokol remained resilient during those first two years. Determined to hold on to that strong vision and sense of a call that had first brought her to the church. With time, there was a shift in not only the viewpoint of the current members towards her, but a growth in the seeds Sokol was planting. Seeds that were sprouting into new life in this dying church. A vision of hope she saw come to life when the first group of new members joined. A day that she ran across the picture of just days before she a Sunday where she would welcome another diverse group of church members into MVP.
“I remember seeing all these people lined up that day. Most of them were young adults, not all of them, but some of them were young adults. Lots of fruit.” Sokol reflects. “And just seeing them all lined up that day was this assurance that okay God you are really working here. People are starting to come here and lives are going to be changed and transformed here. I think seeing that.”
The Mount Vernon Place she first arrived at is a stark comparison to the Mount Vernon Place she serves today.
“It is night and day. But then the legacy of some of these older people really lives on.” Sokol says with now a flash of pride that comes across her face.
Yet there are still harder days as a pastor. However her current members see the gift that is Sokol. A gift they appreciate.
“Donna has this incredible ability to simultaneously inspire an entire room full of people, yet still connect with you individually in a remarkable way that makes you feel known.” says Kristin Kumpf, one of the members of the congregation that joined with the diverse group of new members.
Through this diverse family that congregates at MVP, Sokol is focusing the next steps of her ministry of growing the roots of the church deeper into DC.
“How can we feed more people? When I say feed more people I do mean sometimes it is physical hungry. Hunger. Sometimes dispersion hunger. But sometimes it is just that hunger and longing to be in that midst of community and to be with people who know us and to who we can be our full selves with. I do not think we are called to be the biggest church possible. To grow exponentially. I think we are called to be as deep as possible and to make the biggest impact possible on the city.”