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Scotland AME Zion Presses Toward a Century

Bette C. Thompson joined the choir at Scotland AME Zion Church when she was 13 years old, and she is still singing 53 years later. “We love the singing, and we try to live the life we sing about,” said Thompson, a Scotland resident. “I’ve been a member all my life. … My mother was a member, and my grandparents were members.”

Many guests who attend service at Scotland have passed the church many times on Seven Locks Road, and were drawn to visit by the appearance of the 98-year-old church. Inside, it is a family atmosphere among the 152-member congregation that endears Scotland to its longstanding members, newcomers and pastor alike.

“I love the togetherness here,” said Barbara Smith, who has been part of the choir for 61 years. “It seems like with this small a church, you’re together more. … In the big, large churches, you get lost.”

“This is a family church,” agrees Lauren Tatum, a 7th-grader. The core of the church membership lives in the Scotland community. Other members come from Germantown, Gaithersburg, Forestville, Bowie and D.C., many of whom grew up in the area or have family from Scotland.

Rev. James Phifer has been Scotland’s pastor since 1999, two years after he and his wife, Betty Phifer, moved from the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. When they first visited Scotland, “We were taken in by their kindness,” Phifer said. “It was almost like being home.”

“The entire congregation has just been good for us,” he continued. “The honeymoon seems to be still going.”

KEVIN JOHNSON HAS also found a home at Scotland. He became a member five years ago, a year after he began playing bass for the choir. “My wife and I got married, and … were looking for a fresh new way to start our life together,” said Johnson, whose wife had family members in Scotland. “It was a warm place. That ultimately led me to join.”

Johnson’s experience at the church affirmed his choice, and the community and Phifer have both been supportive when he needed it, he said. When Johnson’s father was dying last year, Phifer would visit him and the family and talk to them all. “He’s genuine about the things he does,” said Johnson. “He does it because he cares.”

With three children, Johnson said, “Hopefully, they’ll remember, ‘This is a place where I grew up.’”

BRANDI SWALES, an 8th-grader, is the sixth generation of her family to worship at Scotland, and she knows her church’s history through and through. Swales’ great-great-great grandmother helped build part of the church, she said, and her grandmother’s sister, who died at the age of 2, is buried behind the church.

“This all did not used to be here. If you go in the back, that used to be the whole church,” said Swales.

Barbara Smith was born and raised in Scotland, joined the choir 61 years ago at the age of 9, and remains a church member and singer, though she now lives with her son in Prince George’s County. Seven Locks Road was a single-lane road when she first attended, and though the road wasn’t wide enough for two cars, that was rarely an issue. “We could get out there in the road and sleigh-ride, and didn’t have to move,” she said.

Smith has seen a positive change in the congregation over the past five or six years. More teenagers attend service now, she said. “We have more men participating in church than we used to,” she said. “The men of today, they’re really helpful in everything you do around you. [Before] they were out doing their own thing, while the women went to church.”

Women often led the church as well — Scotland’s pastors include Rev. Eliza Plummer from 1945-1940 and Dr. E. Marie Johnson, from 1981-1995.

SCOTLAND’S CHOIR NOW has 21 members, including three instrumentalists, Kevin Johnson on bass guitar, John Herbert on drums and Michael Terry on piano.

When Rev. Phifer was first invited to Scotland, he had never been to the North side of the Beltway, but one of the congregants told him, “Pastor, we’ve got a really, really good choir,” Phifer said. “I’m telling you, that was true. … We have a tremendous minister of music [Terry]. He’s Mr. Particular.”

Johnson played bass since junior high school, and was looking to play in a church band six years ago. When he came to Scotland, he encountered drummer John Herbert, who he had known in high school. “There was obviously a reason why God sent me here,” said Johnson, who became a church member with his wife a year after he started playing.

Through 53 years in Scotland’s choir, Bette C. Thompson has sung with a range of musical accompaniment. “Long ago we just had a piano, way back when,” said Thompson. “Sometimes we didn’t have a piano either.”

THOUGH SCOTLAND expanded to its present size in 1967, it is not large enough to house everything its congregation would like. A weekly youth service is held off-site at the Scotland Community Center, and an upcoming choir concert will take place at a larger church in Gaithersburg — there is just enough room in Scotland’s pulpit for the church’s own choir members and ministers.

The church is in the midst of a Building Fund drive. A thermometer on the church’s sign along Seven Locks shows the fundraising efforts have reached $300,000. When the drive has earned $500,000, Phifer says, “We’ll make a decision about whether we have the funds to build a new church or rebuild the old church. … Either is possible, the only sure thing is that we’ll do one or the other.”

ROMAN EMPIRE

Rev. James Phifer of Scotland AME Zion Church isn’t going to brag from the pulpit, but his son is a second-time Super Bowl champion. Roman Phifer, a 13-year veteran of the NFL, played for the New England Patriots, champions of the 2002 and ‘04 Super Bowls.

“I don’t mention much about the teams, because we have some fans there who are Redskins fans or Cowboys fans,” said Rev. Phifer. “Everybody knows it, but I don’t make it a point to be overbearing with my feelings.”

When the Patriots played the Redskins here on Sept. 28, Rev. Phifer attended the game, but only after going to Sunday service. The Redskins beat the Patriots 20-17, and was the last time New England lost this year. “As it turns out, that was probably a turnaround,” said Rev. Phifer.

Rev. Phifer and his wife Betty Phifer went to Houston to attend the game on Feb. 1, and he said the church was supportive of his going. “That’s kind of the attitude of the folks here,” he said. “They wanted me to go to the Super Bowl and have the opportunity to win it.”

Upon Rev. Phifer’s return to Scotland, he thanked the congregation for supporting him during his trip to Houston. “We had support from the people of faith,” he said. “Some of our highest highs have come since we were assigned to Scotland [in 1999]. I thank God for putting me here, putting us here in the family atmosphere and support of Scotland.”

In last Sunday’s sermon on Jeremiah, Rev. Phifer focused on “tattoos on the mind” of those who feel born to lose. At the door of opportunity, some people hold back for fear of failure, but must persist while knowing God has a plan for them.

“I know somebody who was at the door for 11 years,” said Rev. Phifer, referring to his son, who finally won a Super Bowl in his 12th NFL season.

With a congregation that’s mainly pro-Redskins, Phifer’s not inclined to stress the subject much more. “He doesn’t say a whole lot” about Roman Phifer’s accomplishments, said Scotland member Kevin Johnson. “But he enjoys his football, and he should. Having a son win the Super Bowl is a pretty big deal.”

Outside of service, Rev. Phifer is happy to talk about his son and the Patriots. “I’ve been excited, and filled with joy,” he said. “It’s an amazing circumstance for us.”

Roman Phifer, who resides in California during the NFL offseason, comes to Scotland several times a year when he is in town, said Johnson.

REV. PHIFER'S SERMON

On Sunday, Feb. 8, Rev. Phifer returned to service after spending the previous Sunday in Houston watching his son help win the Super Bowl.

He thanked Rev. Fields for leading the service in his absence, and he thanked the Scotland congregation. “We had support from the people of faith,” he said. “Some of our highest highs have come since we were assigned to Scotland [in 1999]. I thank God for putting me here, putting us here in the family atmosphere and support of Scotland.”

Phifer related Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of the Plus Factor,” in which he goes to a tattoo parlor in Hong Kong, and sees a sample tattoo saying, “Born to Lose.” When he asks if people actually get this terrible phrase permanently tattooed on themselves, the tattoo artist says yes, but before the tattoo goes on the body, it is already on one’s mind.

“What’s on your mind?” Phifer said. The thoughts in your mind become your words, which in turn become your actions, which in turn become your character. If you have a position in the church, somehow people ought to know you’re people of Jesus.

“Through this power you can declare that you want to be different,” Phifer said. “You have to first get in touch with the Carpenter. … He can take all the crooked, knotted, warped wood and make it look good.”

There is an “Excuse me for living” attitude that hangs like a cloud over people with no self-confidence, Phifer said. The story of Jeremiah is one of a man who says to God, “I don’t believe I can do what you are asking of me,” said Phifer. “I’m afraid I will fail.”

“Our lives have value because God made us,” Phifer said. “God has a plan for you and your lives. [Jeremiah] shows God’s trust in the man who thought he was too young to do what God wanted him to do.”

“Scotland, He loves you,” Phifer said. “God has blessed you beyond your belief. … The power of the journey does not come from within us, it comes from above us.” God is here to deliver us from rebelliousness, from attitudes of disrespect and defeat.

POTOMAC HISTORIC RESOURCE

From the Potomac Master Plan, African American Communities:

Scotland African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

10902 Seven Locks Road

“Scotland African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church stands as a pillar of continuity, representing the early days of this post-Civil War black settlement. The congregation was organized in 1906 in a nearby house. Construction of the original church was begun in 1915 on land acquired from Otho Simms. The Scotland community dates from the post-Civil War era. A school for black children, known as Scotland School, had been built near the church site in 1874. The Scotland name originated with land patents to Scottish settlers in the 1700s.

“Like Tobytown, the Scotland community, consisting of small one-to-four-room houses, was identified for urban renewal in the 1960s due to its substandard living conditions. New townhouses and sewer and water service improved daily life for Scotland residents, but also changed the physical environment dramatically.

“The church building dates from two periods. Construction of the original section, now a rear wing, was begin in 1915 and completed in 1924. An addition, completed in 1967, was built in front of the original church. The original section is frame with German siding and has pedimented windows with stained glass panes. The main front section, constructed of concrete block, was built in the 1960s. The first service in the addition was held in November, 1967, and the cornerstone was laid in February 1968. The structure has been in continuous use as a religious meeting place since its construction.”