Thriving in the Wake of Disaster

Passionate administration work to rebuild the outside of the Cathedral as well as the inside.

Tuesday, August 23rd of 2011 ruptured the course of Washington D.C.’s architectural future. A 5.8 earthquake shook the city to its foundations, including major landmarks such as the Washington Monument and the Washington National Cathedral.


For a historical and religious symbol to crumble, even in our secular society, it shifts the dynamic of religious strength. Those that originally saw the Cathedral as a place of empowerment and faith were devastated by the catastrophe, and those that did not see the Cathedral as a focal point now had a reason to pay attention. The Cathedral’s commandeering Gothic facade crumbled, stained glass shattered, some of the infamous gargoyles were destroyed.

Like most things in Washington DC, it can be easy to assume that the Washington National Cathedral would be able to be restored to its past glory because of federal funding, considering the word “National” is in the name. However, this is not the case. Church and state jurisprudence means that while the Cathedral is the nation’s religious center, it is not supported by the government. In the years after the earthquake, the Cathedral finds itself in a predicament of locating funding in an ever secular world, begging the question- who will donate to the multi-million dollar earthquake fund? The regulars who have been donating to the cathedral for decades are usually older religious congregation members who have lived in the Virginia, DC, Maryland area. However, these blue-haired congregates yearly twenty-five dollar donations aren’t cutting it, and neither was the Cathedral’s lack of a response system in the event of disasters.

Two years after the earthquake, the Cathedral realized that there was no system in place to effectively solve a crisis like the earthquake. This led to the hiring of the outspoken, intelligent Director of Preservation Jim Shepard. “I’m an unusual candidate,” Jim begins, reaching over to take a sip of his iced coffee, “because I actually have architectural and restoration experience in other Cathedrals.” Jim’s job description entails practically everything physical about the Cathedral. The capital needs, earthquake repair, deterred maintenance, fire safety, and “The Organ Project”, which requires the organ to be updated regularly to continue to function normally. The organ was put in place in 1938, and has slowly been expanded and updated throughout the years. However, this ongoing project has been put on hold since the earthquake because of the crumbling exterior. Ten million dollars of funding needs to be raised to attend to all the damages, both from the earthquake and for the general needs of repairs to make the Cathedral pleasant and habitable. Under Jim’s passionate leadership, the Cathedral has begun to make strides to repair earthquake damage, and will continue to do so with zeal.


While the physicality of the Cathedral is modernized, the Program’s office is also working tirelessly to continue the programs. Michelle Dibblee, the new program director since July, entered with a background in community organizing and social justice work. She has continued progressive work concerning topics like gun violence and racism in relationship to faith. “We’re really looking to grow our relationships between the Cathedral community and the administration, along with finding other organizations that want to work with the Cathedral community on projects to further the gun violence and racial justice work,” Michelle explains, in her quick to the point manner that has become famous among congregation members and administration alike. When I ask her about how she feels that the Cathedral has changed since she has been a part of the Programs team, she clasps her hands together to think. She opens them up again, gesticulating around her, conducting her response, “This initiative to create stronger relationships isn’t a new concept at the Cathedral, I think that the Cathedral has always had a place in the civic sphere about elevating the conversation and experience in our changing society. We are both a spiritual and civic institution. It’s important for the Cathedral to respond to the world around us.”


Most recently, in response to the racially charged shootings and police brutality, the Cathedral had an event in which stained glass from one of the windows was extracted. It was given as a gift commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. In conjunction with taking the stained glass out, the Cathedral brought in speakers and created a schedule of forums to discuss where and how the Confederate flag serves as a piece of history and a proponent of racism. To take these pieces of stained glass out and create an open discussion space about the topic of race within the Cathedral congregation and the population of DC, it places the Cathedral in a new space as a meeting place for discussion and progression. Kelly Brown Douglas, the canon theologian at the Cathedral has coined the term a “new narrative of race” at the Cathedral, which requires the literal building fabric to be a source of discussion and change along with the social fabric of the congregation. After the physical removal of the windows and the planned racial justice events, the Cathedral is making its exterior as strong as its interior.


Just like how the Cathedral is changing physically, it is changing socially as well. The Cathedral might not make any outward political statements, but it is moving towards being a well known, inclusive national landmark and community.