Central Union Mission: A Host to History in Washington, DC
Central Union Mission is the oldest social service agency in the District of Columbia. It was founded in 1884 by the Reverend Latham Douglass, a young pastor filled with compassion for the thousands of homeless, neglected men—many of whom were Civil War veterans—who wandered Pennsylvania Avenue. Originally supported by a “union” of local churches, the Mission has continuously operated an emergency shelter for homeless men and been a place for spiritual uplift and recovery. It has thrived through the Temperance Movement, women’s suffrage, The Great Depression, two world wars, 24 presidential administrations, the Civil Rights movement, neighborhood transitions and numerous relocations.
In 1910, a local women's organization gave a gift of an enormous lighted sign that proclaimed, "Jesus, the Light of the World." The sign was 90 feet long and 26 feet wide and contained a total of 539 lamps. Considered the first of its kind in the world, the “Electric Witness,” as it became known, was erected at the Mission's six-story building at 622 Louisiana Avenue, NW. It was a prominent city landmark for 13 years.
In 1915, John Bennett became the Mission's first long-term superintendent. In 1917, under his wife Jean, the Children's Emergency Home ministry began and started what was then a unique Christmas Bag Program for more than 500 needy children. First Ladies have often helped distribute these gifts; over the years, Grace Coolidge, Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Truman and Barbara Bush were active volunteers. Called “Operation Christmas Miracle” today, the program provides the only Christmas presents 2,000 children will receive--all donated by generous Mission supporters, businesses and organizations.
Camp Bennett was opened in rural Maryland in 1934 as a summer respite for city children and for farming by out-of-work men. During World War II, the Mission ministered to the thousands of lonely service men and women in the nation's capital as well as volunteering Camp Bennett as a POW camp for captured German soldiers.
After the war and deaths of John and Jean Bennett, Rev. and Mrs. Herbert Eberhardt were called to lead the Mission and Children's Home. A replacement for the "Electric Witness" sign was a 1952 gift from Virginia Lyman, a modest school teacher and widow. The new sign was a 15-foot white neon cross with "COME UNTO ME" in red letters, which remains on the 14th & R Streets, NW, building today.
The Mission started a formal Alcoholic Rehabilitation Program in 1966, which opened with six men enrolled. The Mission helped heal the community during DC’s 1968 riots and in 1984, through the Robert Wood Foundation, established one of four clinics for the Health Care for the Homeless Project. In 1991, the Mission opened a care center for homeless HIV-positive patients making it one of only a few rescue missions in the country to actively serve HIV and AIDS patients. In 1998, Executive Director David Treadwell established the Family Ministry in order to serve Hispanic newcomers to DC.
Today, Central Union Mission’s services continue to impact the community. After 31 years on 14th and R Streets, NW, in 2013 the Mission renovated the historic Gales School at 65 Massachusetts Ave., NW, to become a state-of-the-art homeless shelter. Central Union Mission operates six facilities that offer meals and shelter, transitional housing, a food pantry and donation “store,” Camp Bennett, legal, medical and dental services, education and employment. In 132 years, Central Union Mission has had a front-row seat to history as it renovates the lives and futures of thousands of hungry, hurting and homeless people in Washington, DC.