The Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr. is stepping down as pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, citing health problems as a key reason for his retirement.

Hicks has served as pastor of Metropolitan Baptist for 37 years, making him one of the longest continuously-serving pastors in the District of Columbia. He announced the decision to his congregation from the pulpit on Feb. 2. Hicks told a meeting of approximately 200 members of his congregation about his decision the previous Friday.

According to several church members in attendance, Hicks said he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Hicks told church members that a committee has begun forming a succession plan.

Hicks became pastor of Metropolitan in 1977, and under his guidance it became one of the District’s most socially and politically influential churches. From the mid-1980s through the 1990s, worshipers filled the 1,400-seat church sanctuary at 13th and R streets NW. Both early- and late-morning services were often standing room only. On Sundays during election seasons, D.C. candidates had to make sure to visit Metropolitan and be welcomed by Hicks.

At its zenith in the early 2000s, Metropolitan boasted a congregation of more than 6,000 people and 60 ministries. Its impact in its immediate area was hard to miss. The church purchased nearby boarded-up apartment buildings and renovated them. It bought out a corner deli that had been an outdoor hangout for drug dealers and their customers, an action that scattered the illicit traffic and transformed the hangout into a small grocery. Church members helped out a nearby homeless shelter. During a four-year period of time in that decade, Metropolitan donated $250,000 to support a public elementary school adjacent to church property. Finally, the church started its own day school for grades K-8 in the Brookland section of northeast Washington, D.C.

Members of his congregation describe Hicks as an “excellent preacher” who crafted a sermon better than most. Hicks also hit high points with his rich voice—described by one longtime member as “like Paul Robeson”—that touched church worshipers on many Sunday mornings when he would join in song with Metropolitan’s many choirs.

“Rev. Hicks took Metropolitan to another level,” said Claude Bailey, a longtime member of the church who currently serves on its Deacon Board. “He put Metropolitan on the map as one of the great Black churches in the country.”

Three requests for an interview with Hicks were made to Metropolitan, but he was unavailable before deadline.

Metropolitan will celebrate its 150th anniversary this year; it was started by 10 freed slaves in the quarters of Quaker soldiers during the Civil War. In spring 2004, Metropolitan began selling its real estate around 13th, 12th and R streets NW. Among the property sold were its sanctuary and offices, which were bought by Unity of Washington.

That same year, Metropolitan broke ground on a 34-acre parcel of land in Largo in Prince George’s County that was to be the site of new church facilities. Initial plans included a sanctuary that seats 3,000, an amphitheater, a banquet hall, reference and conference centers, private rooms for counseling and a daycare center for children. There also were plans to construct housing for older people on the site.

Plans for the move were driven, in part, because of the growth of the congregation and the diminishing number of parking spaces available near the church because of gentrification. Newcomers to the neighborhood complained loudly to D.C. government officials because Sunday churchgoers from Metropolitan and other downtown churches filled parking spaces. The church members also continued a long-accepted tradition of double parking on some residential streets near the churches, which drew complaints from its newer neighbors.

But the economic downturn derailed Metropolitan’s plans for new facilities, just as the bad economy hurt the expansion plans of many churches as access to money tightened. Construction had hardly begun at the Largo site when, according to published reports, banks would not make further loans to Metropolitan to continue work at the new location.

In meantime, with its buildings sold, Metropolitan had to find a new home for its worship services. It currently uses an auditorium in the former Armstrong High School at 1st and P streets in northwest Washington.

By 2009, the number of church members had fallen to about 2,000. The congregation has shrunk to just below 2,000 since then, according to church members.

“He’s a world class preacher, and a universal spirit,” said Robert (Brother Ah) Northern, who has been a member of Metropolitan for 15 years. “He can reach his people—and I mean African American people—he can reach their intellect through emotions and he can reach their emotions through intellect. He has been very connected to the people.”