Alfred Street Baptist Church (ASBC) was founded in 1803 in Alexandria, Virginia, and is located in one of the city’s oldest African-American neighborhoods. The church underwent architectural improvements in 1994, including the construction of a new sanctuary, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places ASBC’s expansive almost 1,000-seat interior, with its high ceilings ranging from 30 to more than 80 feet in the back of the sanctuary, presented a host of challenges for the staff. The traditional PAR-can theatrical fixtures required frequent and costly bulb changes, and the heat emanating from the fixtures onstage proved debilitating to the choir members in their heavy robes. Also, ASBC’s transition from a more traditional style of worship to a more contemporary one, with an expanded band and worship arts ministry, created the need for an expanded lighting design.
Lighting was a crucial consideration because ASBC’s expansive video-on-demand services have become an integral part of the church’s internal production. With more than 3,000 worshipers attending the weekend services, and the church has overflow rooms where they broadcast. That number surpasses 15,000 when including people viewing archived and live streaming broadcasts and archived video online from around the globe. But the mix of natural daylight streaming through the church’s stained glass backdrop, skylights and more than 20 large windows created a conundrum, both inside the church and on video.
In early 2012, ASBC Technical Services Coordinator Mark Prioleau created a lighting committee—affectionately dubbed SLIP: Sanctuary Lighting Improvement Project—to address these lighting issues. Prioleau contracted with Ivan Burketh of Burketh Enterprises (which provides a wide range of audio, video and lighting solutions for venues), in cooperation with Randy White of Washington Music, to design and implement a new system. The fixtures were located on three tiers aimed at primary presentation areas: choir loft, pulpit and speaking areas on the floor. They were retrofit with new Elektralite options: 72 Variable White Dazers, all fitted with barn doors, and four Elektralite RGBW Pancakes.
“Since we have a strong sense for tradition,” explains Prioleau, “aesthetics were very important in our decision-making process. Also, with our choirs and our drama and dance ministries, these groups were a big part of our lighting design and operation. We wanted to make sure we grouped them in a way that was amenable to our worship service configuration as well as the fine arts configuration.”
“The Elektralite fixtures offered Alfred Street Baptist a cost-effective and extremely bright lighting solution,” says Burketh. “The Dazer Variable White is one of the best 5-watt LED source solutions on the market for the price, with a good and variable beam and field angle. Its amber LEDs are richer and deeper than other fixtures, which, when combined with the 5-watt, high-powered white LEDs, allows for a full and broad variation in color temperature from 2800 to 6500K. These features also helped smooth out the mix of artificial and varying ambient from the structure’s large windows.”
Jason Miccolo Johnson, the ASBC’s official photographer, was asked by Prioleau to join the committee to weigh in on the photography aspects from a pro photography angle. “I shared with them my experience working with different lighting scenarios,” he explains, “because I’ve photographed in over 250 churches around the country and at the White House, as well as having worked in television and broadcast at the network level. Switching over to the LEDs, besides reducing the heat and providing light, allows you to color-balance the lighting. That was my big challenge as a photographer: trying to photograph the pulpit area, and its one color balance and one color temperature. Near the eastern windows, where the sunlight’s coming in, it had a bluer tint to it. On the far side, on the western side of the church, the light coming through those windows represented more of a greenish tone. So we were having these three different color tonations. My input was making sure that the lights would be color balanced all the way across, in daylight balance preferably. This system solved all of those problems and more. With the new fixtures, we’re now able to flood more light in evenly across the perimeter of the church, and hit those pockets, and even into pockets that we previously could not get light into, particularly the far corners of the choir loft and the far corners near the musicians and the piano/organ area. Also, we had the problem of not being able to fully illuminate our center aisle. The very active center aisle of the church is used for drama ministry and liturgical dancer performances, choir processionals, and the pastor’s benediction from the back of the church. Before the Elektralite upgrade, the pastor would be rendered in silhouette.
“In terms of aesthetics,” he adds, “the light fixtures themselves have a nice black matte finish so they don’t distract from the original architecture of the interior. That was important too — to have lights that were aesthetically pleasing.”
When the new lighting was installed and operational, comments were varied from parishioners, choir members and the pastor. “It took people getting used to something a little different; different feel, different temperature,” says Johnson. “When people first walked in, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s different.’ But then they adjusted to it. And it looks good on our HD presentations, too. Looking at the color balance from this past Sunday’s service, it was nice and even and consistent all the way across. I can now get sharper images and more consistent exposures in my photographs using only available light throughout the sanctuary.”
“But the number one salable comment is, ‘Oh, it sure is cooler!’ Definitely the heat difference has been noticeable and appreciated. We also have better coverage over our forward-facing areas. For example during Bible study, the pastor would actually walk up and down the aisles and we could never light him properly so he would end up coming through like a silhouette on a video presentation. We can now light the center aisle, the side aisles, where people stand to ask questions in meetings or Bible study, and we have better lighting to cover each situation. I think we’ve maximized what we can do with these new fixtures and we’re very happy with the results.
“Simply raising the light level across the sanctuary makes it feel more alive and more engaging,” adds Johnson. “I liken it to the same philosophy that they use in Las Vegas: those lights have an impact upon the human energy. You just feel more excitable when there are more lights, and it’s definitely a more vibrant, and more intense worship experience. It’s important to be able to see everything that’s going on within the sanctuary, and to be able to see with clarity in order to feel connected. I think when you feel connected, you feel more inspired to participate. I think, based on what I’ve seen — it’s anecdotal, there hasn’t been any technical research on it — but I think that people give more to the collection plate when they can see better and feel more engaged and more inspired.”
“Switching to the LEDs offered four benefits for us,” Prioleau sums up. “It reduced heat generated from lighting, improved coverage of stage and pulpit areas for broadcasts and recordings, reduced maintenance costs associated with bulb replacement and reduced electrical costs from lighting. The new LED technology definitely offered an advantage of cooler temperatures and lower electrical bills, and the research showed that the lifespan of these instruments was far longer than the regular bulbs, which greatly reduced our need to bring in lifts to change these fixtures, which was problematic and also costly. Overall, we’re very pleased with the new Elektralite fixtures.”
Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, Senior Pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church offers his insight as well. “With our church experiencing tremendous growth in both our live attendance and live streaming viewership, I felt the lighting improvements worth the investment to maximize the effectiveness of our visual presentations. Also, frequently having to preach three times over the course of a weekend, the tremendous reduction in heat on the pulpit from the lights has already made it a worthwhile investment.”
Photo Credit: Jason Miccolo Johnson Photography