Answering the Next Call
Man Who Ministered to D.C.'s Untouchables Heads West

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."

While working as a school custodian out west, he volunteered to travel to the District to help renovate the building on C Street SE owned by Urban Outreach, an Assemblies of God missionary outpost. The neighborhood's struggles were so moving, he said, that he quit his job to join the mission. His epiphany came when he heard a baby making sound that seemed to mimic two arguing adults. "It was seeing this thing perpetuate itself from one generation to the next," he said.

At first, East worked as the mission's maintenance man. Then thieves broke in and stole $8,000 in sound equipment, convincing the mission and East that they needed to reach out more aggressively to the neighborhood.

The place where East went was the corner of Central and Southern avenues, at the edge of East Capitol Dwellings, once among the city's most violent housing projects. He spent afternoons walking and ministering to residents and to junkies getting high in vacant apartments.

While serving soup on the corner, he met Cathy Wolfe, who showed up one day to volunteer. Five months later, they were married, and she relocated from Charles County, where she worked as an administrative assistant. Her three adult daughters were stunned by her new Southeast address. "They kept their heads down in the car when we drove around," East said.

Two years later, the District shut down East Capitol Dwellings to make way for new apartments and single-family homes, a project applauded by many in the neighborhood but one that filled East with sadness. In recent weeks, he and Cathy snapped photographs of the rubble for their memories. "I see the people who used to be here; did they progress?" he asked. "You can look at basic -- what do you call it? -- infrastructure, and it's getting nicer. But what about the people? Have their lives gotten better?"

After the housing project closed, East took the mission's soup truck about a mile away, to Division Avenue, and gave out meals on Saturdays to crowds that often exceeded 150. He distributed a final serving of chili there Saturday.

Nearly all of the people he has met on the street still struggle with addiction. A handful -- 20, by his estimate -- have managed to enroll in full-time treatment and remain in touch with him.

Shedonna Tyson, 42, a former crack addict, said she knew East for two years before asking him to take her to detox at D.C. General Hospital. A week later, he picked her up when she walked out and helped her enroll in a seven-week treatment program. "He was pretty much waiting for me to make my own decision," she said.

East took the same approach with a woman he knew for two years before she begged him to help her beat a 32-year addiction to heroin. "I was so far down, I thought I would die an addict," said the woman, 53, who declined to give her name because she said her employer does not know about her past. Today, she lives in Prince George's County and works full time as an office manager.

There are also those still wrestling with survival. Stopping on Division Avenue, East bumped into Gwendolyn Ewing, 49, her eyes bloodshot, her puffy hands covered in weltlike needle marks, and so tired that "if I sit down I'll go right to sleep."

"Watch over her, Lord, help her do right, help her not to get that urge to double dose," East prayed, gathering her in his arms. "Just be near her."

Reflecting later on his departure, East acknowledged "a bit of guilt" about leaving people. But he said he knows the limits of his responsibility. "I'm doing what I'm supposed to do," he said. "The rest is up to God."

Strolling Central Avenue on another afternoon, he found Rene Jones, 49, a reed-thin addict who was among the first he met on the street, sitting on the sidewalk, gray sunglasses propped on her head, tears streaking her cheeks.

East assured her that she could still go to detox, there was still time. Then he held her hand and prayed for her recovery. Dabbing her cheeks with a napkin, Jones walked back to reclaim her patch of sidewalk and did not look back.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company