Answering the Next Call

David East has spent five years walking the streets of east Washington  --  above, around Division Avenue  --  to minister to drug addicts.
David East has spent five years walking the streets of east Washington -- above, around Division Avenue -- to minister to drug addicts. (Photos By Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

The two men sat in the shade of the bus shelter, a long block from the methadone clinic where they are regulars, unnoticed by the passing world, it seemed, except for David East, who strode across the tattered strip to ask how they were faring.

Not all that well, as it turned out. The clinic, they said, plans to shut down in a couple of months, and police officers had been hassling people hanging out on nearby corners and in the park across the street. "I don't know doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs -- I know crooks, hookers and dope peddlers," said Thomas Twitty, 66, fingering an unlit cigarette.

"I've been there," East chuckled. Then he shared a bit of his own news: After five years of feeding and ministering to drug addicts and alcoholics who congregate on street corners on the eastern edge of the District, he is packing up his Bibles and recipes for chili and chicken barley soup and moving to the state of Washington.

His impending departure has prompted palpable sadness among the people he has come to know on the street, though not because they fear there won't be others -- church volunteers, fresh-faced college kids -- dispensing meals and coats after he is gone.

East was different. He came out from behind the soup pots and hugged people, kissed them on the forehead, listened to their stories of trying to give up dope and drink, and drove them to treatment programs when they were ready. At day's end, he remained in the neighborhood, living with his wife and his parrot on C Street SE, in a modest brick apartment building owned by the faith-based mission that drew him to the District.

Residents knew him by his first name and grew accustomed to seeing him at the corner of Central and Southern avenues, where addicts and drug peddlers have long gathered. "I've seen some who come to help and get scared away. He stayed," said Frank Tate, 60, a contractor who lives a block from Central Avenue. "He walks every day. You can't beat a man who walks. He knows the people, he ministers to them, he tries to find them jobs. I've never seen anyone do this like that, and I've been here all my life."

The soup truck East drove was not always welcome in the neighborhood, particularly among residents who complained that his food was a magnet for unsavory characters. "My feeling was the soup kitchen is feeding people I'd just as soon not see standing on the corner," said the Rev. Bernard Taylor, pastor at Open Door Baptist Church, on Central Avenue.

But Taylor said his view softened, in part because of East's commitment. "Here's a guy doing stuff," he said. "I can tolerate a little more."

Tall and engaging, his face framed by a gray beard, East, 54, invoked his religious faith to explain his departure, saying that God had called him to work on an Indian reservation, just as He had sent him to work in the District. Aspects of the work had grown frustrating, he said, whether it was finding beds in detox programs or helping addicts acquire the proper identification to gain treatment. "I'm at home on the street," East said. "But all that other stuff seemed like work."

In recent weeks, East has made the rounds to tell people of his departure. As he ambled along Division Avenue NE, a bedraggled strip lined with a liquor store, a storefront church and vacant buildings, familiar faces called out "Dave!" and "Hey, Rev."

"Oh, no, why you want to leave me?" asked Thomas Gordan, 48, as he limped along, pushing a walker. Returning a few days later, East wrapped his long arms around Ronald C. Wilson, 52, who lingered against a brick wall. "They gonna miss you around here," Wilson said, his chin a grizzled gray.

East, who grew up an hour north of Los Angeles, knows firsthand about addiction. After earning a nursing degree, he spent five years working at hospitals on the West Coast, a career that he said crumbled as he became an alcoholic, drinking as much as a quart of vodka a day for a decade. At points, he said, he was destitute and slept on the streets. He was close to suicide, he said, when he had what he described as a religious experience and gave up vodka because "I didn't want anything to come between me and the Lord."

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