In 2015, a Christian group erected a 1,600-square-foot tent on the Mall, where it has sat ever since. If you’ve wandered by David’s Tent, as it’s called, perhaps you’ve wondered: Just what is the deal with this thing? One recent afternoon, I stopped by to find out.
A nondenominational group started by an evangelical named Jason Hershey, David’s Tent is a 24-hour-a-day operation manned by a rotating three-person team that hands out Bibles and performs religious music. When I got there, I was greeted by a grinning, bearded New Orleanian named Walton Fort, who has worked in the tent for more than a year. Rather than try to sell me some of the Hershey-penned books that covered a nearby table, he grabbed his coat and suggested we chat outside. “See, God wants to bring his kingdom not only to us but through us,” Fort began.
But my visit had been prompted by practical rather than spiritual concerns, so I asked him to explain how the group is able to occupy this public spot. It turns out anyone can set up on the Mall. All it takes is an easily obtained permit from the National Park Service, which can be renewed every four months—indefinitely.
So why isn’t the area entirely filled with Scientologists, conspiracy-theorists, and proselytizers of all beliefs and denominations? The catch is that permitted space has to be continuously occupied. Few organizations have the manpower, money, and sheer commitment to pull off an operation like David’s Tent, which is staffed by volunteers and funded by donations. Costs include renting the structure and maintaining a row of porta-potties. One of the biggest expenses is the organization’s dormitory-style housing in Fort Washington, where volunteers live when they aren’t doing shifts in the tent. “You want to find out how much you love God? Try living with about 20 people you don’t know,” Fort says.
Meanwhile, interacting with a skeptical public brings other challenges. A few months ago, Fort recalls, a passerby asked him how long the group planned to stay. Fort answered, “For a while, I hope.” The man sneered, “Well, I don’t,” and stormed off. Fort went back inside the tent and prayed for him.
This article appeared in the May 2018 issue of Washingtonian.