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Intersections: Benning Road and East Capitol Street SE: Ward 7’s helping hands

By — Robert Samuels,

In his weekly series, staff writer Robert Samuels explores the District, street corner by street corner.

When Stephanie Lewis heard that the men had returned to this corner, she left her house right away.

She pulled a leopard-print shower cap over her head because her hair wasn’t presentable. She slipped into a pink down coat and fastened the buckles on high black boots. Weeks ago, she got both items for practically nothing at the intersection of Benning Road and East Capitol Street SE, where church-going men come three days a week to give clothes to the needy.

By the time Lewis arrived, a dozen men and women were rummaging through jeans and jackets placed on two fold-out tables. Out of a blue van from the faith-based Mission of Love Charities in Capitol Heights, the men pulled out nine large bags of clothes.

“You got any boots?” she asked Will Clarke, 54, who lives in Suitland.

“You gotta keep on looking,” he said, pulling out a bag of shoes.

Lewis, 47 and unemployed, found two jackets for herself, one for her daughter and one for her grandson. She also picked up a more subdued pair of boots that she said would be good for work — when she gets an interview.

“My sister, those look a little too big!” Clarke said.

Clarke is a jovial man with a fondness for quoting the Old Testament. In the daytime, he volunteers at Mission of Love’s warehouse, where workers accept clothing donations to give out at shelters.

A year ago, he and a team decided to reach out by going to the Benco Shopping Center parking lot, a place illuminated by the neon Laundromat sign behind them and perfumed by the Popeye’s in front of them.

The corner is the heart of Ward 7. Some residents call the neighborhood Shrimp Boat, owing to the massive red sign for a fish market, the closest thing they have to a landmark. Clarke calls it the region’s version of Samaria, a place occupied by those who have been dejected, now crippled by violence and lack of economic opportunity.

The men on the corner hope the people will get a hand up by handing out clothes. He calls the mission “Operation Moses.”

“Moses raised the people up,” Clarke said. “That’s what we try to do. It’s just giving back. Any man should want to come back to a neighborhood and do the right thing.”

And the people sing praise to the presence of the men on the corner. A single dad spoke of how they hooked him up with a new two-piece suit, which he wore on a job interview. He’s now working in human resources.

Blue-collar and service workers tell about how the boots they received here were so sturdy, they wore them every day for years. The boots seemed as much of a blessing as the job itself in a ward in which one in seven residents are unemployed.

Mothers tell about how the blankets they got to keep their kids warm during the winter.

“I just need one glove!” shouted a man named Lynn Tony, gesticulating with his lone, covered hand. “That’s it! One glove! I got work tonight. But I can’t work with only one glove.”

He received two.

“God bless y’all!” he said. “Will, man, you’ve turned around.”

Tony is 50 years old. He remembers when Clarke was hanging with another type of men on the corner, directionless young men who’d rob and steal and fight.

“I did a little bit of everything,” Clarke said. “I was doing what boys around this area do and I needed to clean up. Now, I can come back and inspire people.”

The men seek only donations for the clothes. Most buyers give coins or single dollar bills.

Not that this is about money. It’s about blessings. Eric Jones, who works with Clarke, freely admits that he was selling drugs. He stopped when he realized peddling clothes uplifted his community more.

“Do you have a 42 waist?” an outreach worker on the corner asked.

“Anyone with kids who needs a jacket? This one has Spider-Man on it.”

“Who here needs socks?”

A 24-year-old walked up with a stroller carrying an infant swaddled in a blanket. She had gotten out of prison recently and returned to the neighborhood where she grew up.

“All right, what do you need? You want some shoes, some coats?” Clarke asked. “You know I don’t like seeing you out here with the baby when it’s cold.”

She told him he need not worry. She got into a nearby shelter. She wouldn’t be homeless tonight.

After an hour of working, the men started to pack up into their church van. As they started to file in, Stephanie Lewis — still with a shower cap over her head — ran to the parking lot. She was in the pair of shoes she had just picked up.

“The shoe fits just right!” she said as she extended her legs to show them off. “The community needs more of this. . . . It’s getting better, but we need help.”

Around the same time as the van left, just a block away, residents called for a different type of help. Three people had just been shot. The police were on their way.

— Robert Samuels

This week’s intersection was suggested by commenter SEDC. Do you have a favorite intersection? E-mail the reporter at samuelsr@washpost.com. For more in this series, go to postlocal.com.

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