During Lenten season, 85-year-old Thurmon Stovall and his wife, Irish, 81, carry out what has become an annual family tradition: They volunteer at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Northwest Washington to serve lunch to mostly senior citizens who come from community centers and churches citywide each Wednesday. For the couple, it’s a labor of love.
“I always think about Christ and how he went to the cross for us, and it gives me pleasure and joy to think that I am doing something to help someone else,” said Irish Stovall, who with her husband has been serving meals each week during Lent at the church for 20 years. “It is about giving and service.”
It’s all part of a highly orchestrated production organized by a small group of elderly women who plan the luncheons for hundreds each week. A staple of the church’s broader decades-old program celebrating Lent, the meals follow a special service led by guest pastors who offer sermons to the assembled congregants.
The lunches are staffed by a range of church members, community volunteers and residents of senior citizens homes who are asked to participate.
“This is just a time of service for the elderly people who come out,” Thurmon Stovall said of the luncheons, which are free to the public. “It is a lot of work, but I like to do it.”
On a recent Wednesday in late March, volunteers served broiled chicken, baked potatoes, green beans and hot rolls to more than 200 people who had come from churches across the city. The tables in the fellowship room were draped with linen tablecloths, and set with fine china and sterling silverware. Most of the guests that day were senior citizens who came from area churches that included Nativity Catholic Church, Canaan Baptist Church, Jerusalem Baptist Church, Alexander Memorial Baptist Church and Mount Zion United Methodist Church.
And keeping a watchful, no-nonsense eye on the entire production was 94-year-old Eleanora Winston, the coordinator of the lunches.
“I don’t do much talking, but I will work and I will sing,” said Winston, who has been working and serving at the church for more than 50 years. “I have been a Christian since I was 12 years old, and I have always worked in the church.”
Winston calls on volunteers of all ages who cook, serve and clean up each week.
The lunches are part of the Baptist church’s annual commemoration of Lent, a period more commonly observed by more liturgical parts of Christianity, including Catholics and Lutherans. Nineteenth Street Baptist, one of the oldest historically black churches in Washington, has been observing Lent for nearly 50 years as a way of promoting interdenominational unity.
“One of the most important things that we do during the Lenten season is bring together people from all across the community and different churches for meaningful worship and fellowship,” said the Rev. Derrick Harkins, the church’s senior pastor.
Robin Smith, an assistant to Harkins, said that the tradition dates to when the church was located several blocks from the White House, at the corner of 19th and I streets NW.
“The original goal was having a service for federal workers on their lunch break,” she said.
The Rev. Jerry Moore, 95, who was pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church for more than 50 years, said in an interview that he was pleased the tradition that began when he was pastor continues to thrive. “I’m very glad that the Lent service is still going,” he said.
His wife, Ettyce Moore, said many Baptist churches at first criticized the congregation for holding a Lenten service.
“Some of the Baptist ministers didn’t appreciate what we were doing, because they said we were trying to be Catholic, but it was more than successful,” she said.
Referring to the church’s move to its current location on 16th Street near Buchanan Street, she added: “When we moved to the new church building, we had to change the focus. That’s when we invited the different churches.”
Indeed, the productions enrich the church’s entire community. Some of the volunteers are members of the church’s custodial staff who said that helping out is part of their service during the Lenten season.
Anthony Kelly, 51, said serving reminds him of the importance of family. “When I think about interacting with these people, I think about my grandmother who has passed on and the one who is still here,” he said. “I am grateful to be able to do this. . . . It is the least that I can do for God.”