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The Bishop's House
Bumper-to-bumper crowds for D.C.'s 10,000+ points of light

By Theodore Fischer, Washington Sidewalk

Unlike some cities we know, Washington isn't much into Yuletide exuberance, except at the Bishop's House. Located in the closest place in the District to the North Pole on North Portal Drive a couple of blocks west of 16th Street this spectacular sound-and-light show has been stopping traffic for more than 30 years.

The display of (at least) 10,000 lights adorns the Tudor-style minicastle and grounds occupied by the leader of the D.C.-based United House of Prayer for All People. The Bishop's House cheerfully mixes complicated configurations of Christmas symbols sacred and profane: a life-size Nativity scene beside a bower of candy canes; soaring stone angels and a Santa's sleigh guided by Rudolph with a Christmas-light red nose. Around back, a giant snowman occupies a hilltop overlooking Christmas trees dedicated to D.C. and each of the 24 states with United House of Prayer congregations.

The story behind the Bishop's House is as colorful as the Christmas lights. Although the house is now occupied by the current bishop, S.E. Madison (his photograph hangs above the front door), the bishop who turned on the lights in 1963 was Walter "Sweet Daddy" McCollough, the church's charismatic leader from 1960 until his death in 1991. A spellbinding preacher, McCollough was credited with increasing church membership to some 3 million worldwide, constructing low-rent housing in D.C. and half a dozen other cities and making his imprimatur all but essential for election to office in the District.

His death occasioned a 4-hour New Orleans-jazz funeral followed by a five-city visitation tour and a bitter internecine dispute. Bishop McCollough was first buried at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Md., in a $700,000 memorial mausoleum built by the church to accommodate the huge crowds that regularly showed up for the Christmas lights. A year and a half later, after a successful appeal to the Prince George's County government by the bishop's widow, McCollough's body was moved to a family crypt at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Md.

The United House of Prayer headquarters, known as "God's White House," occupies a complex of buildings at Sixth and M streets N.W. Even if you're not ready for redemption, make the pilgrimage for the famous soul food in the cafeteria (601-A M St. N.W., 202-789-2289; open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends).

Directions: The Bishop's House is located at 1665 N. Portal Dr. N.W. on the corner of Birch Drive, two blocks west of 16th Street. If you can't find a parking space nearby, park on South Portal Drive at Primrose Road and take the footpath across the small ravine.

See also: The bishop's 'hood

Theodore Fischer, 1801 August Drive, Silver Spring, MD 20902, Tel: 301-593-9797, Fax: 301-593-9798, email: