Since opening our doors in 1960, the story of The Potter’s House has been entwined with that of Adams Morgan. Celebrating the neighborhood’s gifts, as well as sharing in its struggles, this rustic church-run coffee house on Columbia Rd. grew into a vibrant center for activism, the arts, and community development.
The vision for The Potter’s House was born when Gordon and Mary Cosby spent the night above a noisy tavern in New England. Surmising that Jesus would have been more at home there than the staid church they had just visited, they began to imagine a place that would welcome everyone, Christian or not, to explore life’s big questions. Members of The Church of Saviour rallied around the idea, and The Potter’s House soon became a reality. Reclaimed barn wood walls and candlelit white tablecloths set the scene. Specialty coffees and desserts drew in crowds for deeper conversations, some of which were broadcast on a weekly radio show. An artists guild curated rotating exhibitions and soon started a gift shop up the street to share their creative works. By the mid-1960’s, The Potter’s House had become a national phenomenon, spurring similar coffeehouses in churches and on campuses across the country.
Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, church members began to accompany the neglected children at Junior Village, a large city-run orphanage. Founding For Love of Children in 1965, they secured living alternatives for the youth there and eventually organized the institution’s closure. Further awakened by the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Potter’s House began to connect more deeply with its African-American neighbors. Years of racially motivated disinvestment had begun to take their toll on the area, and hundreds of families were living in slum conditions while paying exorbitant rents. Building relationships across poverty and privilege, Jubilee Housing was formed in 1973 to rehabilitate the Mozart and Ritz apartments and ensure their affordability. Others buildings soon followed, along with an after school program and free health clinic for Jubilee residents and beyond.
Throughout the 1970’s Adams Morgan was a swirling center of social activism and cultural change. Longtime neighborhood residents fought discrimination and displacement under the banner of Black Power. The Mayday Tribe planned massive anti-war actions from their communal house on Lanier Place. Those migrating from Latin America to Adams Morgan and nearby Mt. Pleasant brought their rich cultures with them, coming together annually for the highly attended Latino Festival. Reflecting these developments, programs at The Potter’s House increasingly explored themes of liberation, solidarity, and care for the earth. Spanish language nights were held regularly and the drumming often heard in Unity Park began to make its way inside our doors. While not without conflict, the church’s vision of ‘our people’ was expanded beyond earlier boundaries, as Elizabeth O’Connor chronicled in her book The New Community.
In 1976 The Church of the Saviour dispersed into smaller churches, several of which came to call The Potter’s House home. These churches would become important bases for community development and provide critical infrastructure in an era of decreased funding for the inner city. A number of direct service organizations emerged in the following decade. Jubilee Jobs provided a path to employment for those struggling to find work. L’Arche offered a human-centered alternative to institutionalization for those with intellectual disabilities. Sarah’s Circle enabled Adams Morgan seniors to age in place. Christ House gave homeless men and women a place to rest and heal. Samaritan Inns supported those taking steps in their recovery from chemical addiction. Academy of Hope came alongside adult learners furthering their education. Founded at the height of the crisis, Joseph’s House journeyed with those dying of HIV/AIDS.
Another call in the 1980s was accompanying the political and economic refugees fleeing the civil wars in Central America. The Family Place and Columbia Road Health Services became important touchstones for these travelers, providing support to young parents and medical care to those without official residency status. Risking legal sanction, Eighth Day and Jubilee Churches declared themselves Sanctuary communities and helped to mobilize the Pledge of Resistance in protest of US foreign policy throughout the region. Settling in the area, Salvadorans and others opened small businesses on Columbia Road and became The Potter’s House’s new neighbors.
Alongside these activist efforts came a renewed emphasis on the arts. Potter’sHouse Press produced beautiful catalogs documenting Latino craft and local street art as well as the work of individual artists. Kerygma staged plays and readings while folk singers performed in the front of the coffeehouse. The art of hospitality, too, was practiced at The Potter’s House. Long time cook Mary Easley made everyone feel welcome with her sweet potato pie and other soul food favorites. This hospitality extended to all who entered our doors, regardless of their ability to pay, and The Potter’s House became known as a safe space for those on the margins.
Throughout all the twists and turns over the past half-century in Adams Morgan, The Potter’s House has provided a place where neighbors can become friends, ask big questions, and build movements. In a city whose name is synonymous with the plans of the powerful, it has sought to model a new way - one in which everyone’s gifts are celebrated and shared for the good of all.