The saints, arriving, had rented this abandoned store and taken out the fixtures; had painted the walls and built a pulpit, moved in a piano and camp chairs, and bought the biggest Bible they could find. They put white curtains in the shop window, and painted across this window TEMPLE OF THE FIRE BAPTIZED. -- James Baldwin, from "Go Tell It On The Mountain"
The Assemble of Joel Prophecy, a storefront church next door to Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken on H Street NE, is everything to the 11 women who have gone there -- it's their Notre Dame, their Lourdes, their Kappa Kappa Gamma. And for the old man stumbling into the back pew, the room is nothing less than an air-conditioned godsend.
Though he is slouched over and staring blankly at the rickety piano, the old man seems to hear, and even relish, the testimony given at this Wednesday night prayer session. Every time one of the 11 women gets up to testify and sing, he bobs his head. He seems to recognize every heartbreaking story the women tell as something like his own.
Alice E. MacLean rises from her seat. She has remained quiet so far, letting the other women dominate the service, but now her eyes, onyx-dark and a little watery, seem to steel themselves for this moment: "I had open-heart surgery and brain surgery also. I was scared but my cousin said it wouldn't hurt. He was right and I made it. I was on the deathbed twice in my life and I thank Jesus for my life. I thank the Lord for my food and my shelter and every morning I can take a good breath and feel the blood warm in my veins!"
The old man smiles and tries to raise his hand.
"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," he mutters. He begins to fall and the Rev. Dorothy Allen catches him and leans him back in the pew. He has passed out, drunk and tired.
Jettie Pharr, who travels to different churches all over the city, begins to jump up and down screaming "JESUS! JESUS! JESUS!" She is 54 and plump, but keeps it up for five minutes. Not until Addie White and Allen ease her into her seat does Pharr calm down. She is out of breath, her skin is clammy -- the real miracle is that she hasn't passed out, too.
As with many storefront preachers, the Rev. Dorothy Allen is the leader of a tiny flock with little more to give than time and spirit. It's been a good night, with $15 in the collection plate and a few newcomers, but the future of the church depends almost solely on her.
"I do day work, cleaning homes out in Alexandria, out in Montgomery," says Allen. She is in her mid-sixties. Her hair is graying but her eyes are bright and alert. She takes off her slippers to reveal callused, swollen feet. "I get very tired after a long day. But I come here anyway. At my age you start to fall to pieces if you don't keep busy. The work's pretty hard but I have it under control. The Lord keeps it beautiful.
"I was born in Forkland, N.C., near Greenville, the county seat. My parents died when I was 3. One of influenza, one of tuberculosis. My grandparents brought me up. Five of us moving from one farm to another all the time. Sharecroppers. It wasn't great but that's what was happening. We didn't have lots of money but we always had lots to eat, lots of clothes. We slept decent.
"We went to the Freewill Baptist Church in a little town called Fountain. It was so beautiful. How can I tell you? It started out real small, then they got a place for 300 people and then a real big place for 500. Still we could only go to services there once a month because so many people wanted to go. They came from all around. We had a preacher, seven deacons, seven ladies called 'mothers,' two different singing groups. Real big."
Allen's church is modest: 25 folding chairs, a piano, an altar, a handwritten placard quoting Joel's prophecy of the birth of Christ, a few vases filled with plastic lilies of the valley.
"I came here in 1946 and lived with a friend of mine in a govenment house on 21st and Benning," says Allen. "I was here four years before I could go to church because I worked Sundays at the Fairfax Hotel as a busgirl. Pretty spiffy, huh?
"After a while I became a member of the New Hope Freewill Baptist Church in Southeast. I became a minister in 1964. It wasn't by myself. How can I explain it to you? Oooo!" She lifts her hands and smiles. "I can say to you I had a calling on my life to the Lord and I tried to answer that call. 1964. They sent me off to Baltimore to pastor a church a lot like this one for a year. I started out in Washington with 10 people in my basement on the 1200 block of Constitution NE. My family, some friends, some people from Baltimore. I've been serving Jesus ever since."
While most storefront churches have a core of around 25 parishoners, people tend to wander in, maybe for a few Sundays, maybe just once. Frances is 42 and has seven grandchildren. She says she hasn't been in church in three years and after 10 minutes of hearing the pleading voices of prayer around at the Assemble of Joel Prophecy, she breaks into uncontrollable sobbing. Then she gets up to testify:
"I'm nobody's ol' child. I'm proud to be back in the house of the Lord. My mother said no one will help you if you don't help yourself. Now I'm not gonna tell anyone here I'm an angel because I've done a little of everything on the street. I was hanging with the wrong crowd. Maybe my mother should have kept me at home with bars on the windows. I would've been angry with her but it might have been better. Thank you, Jesus."
Frances is coughing and feeling dizzy. She goes outside to get a little air out on H Street. While she sits on the hood of a Mercury telling her story, a family files out of Popeye's, a teen-aged boy shows his friend a large switchblade. The air is cooler out here but Frances is still sweating.
I've been sick," she says and goes over to a pile of trash and coughs. "I'm coughing up green and brown. The doctor gave me pills and about a gallon of medicine. I just feel depressed, plus I'm sick.
"I'd been drinking beer. I take a hard drink every now and then but I only have but one kidney. I got so sickly when my mother died. 1961. I lost a daughter in 1959. She had an enlarged heart and pneumonia because it was so damp in our place all the time. I lost two sisters. One of . . . y'know, I don't remember so good no more. I went to New York and I slipped on the snow and I hit the back of my head. I felt blood. Then I went back out and fell down on the front of my head. I started losing consciousness and I heard a man say 'This girl's dying.' I was in some garage but they took me to a hospital. That was 1964."
Frances tries to clear her head and stares a while at the traffic on H Street. Then she looks up and says, "Now I'm telling you all this but next week I might not remember anything."
Churches and church leaders have long played an important political and cultural, as well as religious role, in Washington. Especially in the lives of black Washingtonians. The Rev. Ernest Gibson and Bishop Smallwood Williams in Shaw, the Rev. Jesse Anderson Jr. in Anacostia, and the Rev. Walter Fauntroy in Congress, are but a few of the black church leaders in the area.
The Rev. Ernest Graham, executive director of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, says "there is a ballpark estimate of 700 storefront churches in this city," but since each church usually averages anywhere from 40 to four parishoners, it is difficult to estimate how many Washingtonians attend storefront churches every week.
As for their political power, Graham says, "Initially, the young, smaller churches give the most attention to their own survival. Sometimes, though, we discover that with some assistance, they begin to look at the community."
Along H Street, many of the church signs cover old ones. "That's the pattern," says Graham. "Once one storefront church moves, another moves in. They start in two different ways. The most predominant way is that a minister feels that he has been directed by God to start a church. He and his wife and children, maybe a few friends or extended family, begin to worship together. It could even be in a basement before they can rent a storefront. The other way -- it's less common -- is when there's some kind of split from another church."
As they are in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere, he says, storefront churches are clustered in "the decaying centers of cities where there are lower-income people already or moderate-income people are in the process of leaving": Anacostia, Upper Cardozo, Northeast, Shaw. The H Street churches -- mostly Southern black variations of Baptist or Pentecostal -- are typical of Washington's storefronts.
But even an Islamic storefront like the Masjid Ul-Muggaarrabeen is not atypical. Out in front, a young black man wearing a kufi sells homemade snow-cones while inside dozens pray in a huge carpeted room, bowing to the East five times a day. Although the Moslem and Baptist faiths are worlds apart, their storefronts are only a couple of doors away.
It is a clear, starry night and Joanna Perkins is steering her daughter's '78 Mustang gingerly as if through a Yorkshire fog. She is 47, mother of eight, a clerk at the Rose Williams fashion shop, and an evangelist at the Assemble. She patiently recounts the details of her life but when the subject turns to religion, her eyes brighten and glisten. "The Lord saved me six months after my husband died. That was 10 years ago," says Perkins. She steers down Florida Avenue, never breaking 15 miles an hour. "The Lord helped me raise my children. I've been blessed. All of them are in good health.
"I've been at the Assemble of Joel Prophecy for six years. Praise the Lord. I'm a member and help out by paying in 10 percent of my earnings to the church. It's not a lot. It's in the Scripture. The Lord has to help us find a way to pay our bills and utilities. I love that storefront better than any bigger church because we're near the spirit of the Lord. I was saved in a storefront."
As she talks she smiles and, for an instant, forgets her driving.
"I believe we just went through a stop light," she says as she barely escapes contact with a honking sedan. Her passenger is clawing the dashboard and putting a hole through the floorboards but Joanna Perkins is smiling, grateful, never angry. "Thank Jesus, we're alive. Thank the Lord. My, my, my!"
Every Sunday morning, then, since John could remember, they had taken to the streets, the Grimes family on their way to church. Sinners along the avenue watched them -- men still wearing their Saturday night clothes and women with harsh voices and tight, bright dresses, cigarettes between their fingers or held tightly in the corners of their mouths. -- James Baldwin, "Go Tell It On the Mountain"
A few hours before services begin in the churches along the corridor running from North Capitol Street to Benning Road, Saturday night, finally exhausted, gives over to Sunday morning. On a sidewalk strewn with broken bottles of Seagrams and Miller, a little boy in his powder-blue suit runs to the grocery store with $2 in his hand. You can hear a portable radio tuned to WYCB playing Baptist sermons and gospel singers.
In the back room kitchen of the St. Rose Pentecostal Church, a tiny storefront between Lee Rug Service and Love's Five and Ten, Dorothy Body walks away from a trio of children who are studying Bible comic books. "People party all Saturday night," she says in her rich Carolina accent. "Not for me, though. Anyway, today is Sunday, God's day."
During the week, the empty church looks dingy, more like an abandoned store than a place of worship. Three bare bulbs hang from the ceiling. The fading yellow paint is peeling off the walls in sheets. Wilting cardboard fans with balsa handles are scattered around the church. The fans have pictures of Christ among the lambs over which someone has carefully written "I Love God" in Magic Marker. But the heaviness of the summer air is more than even these beatific fans can handle.
Without inspiring steeples or awesome stained glass, a storefront church like this one depends absolutely on the ardor of its parishoners. And now, with almost 40 of them packed into the pews and folding chairs, with Ramona Foster knocking out "No Condemnation in My Heart" like a reincarnation of Mary Lou Williams, with 66-year-old Pearl Lucas chanting and the Rev. Ether Lofton preaching, the St. Rose Pentecostal Church, like so many of the hundreds of storefront churches in Washington, fills up with . . .
The parishioners here take the "Praise Him upon the loud cymbals" of Psalm 150 as an absolute command: if the Lord can't hear them now, He must be out of town. Nearly everyone over 30 in the church was born in North or South Carolina and raised in the rural black churches and they have brought a rollicking, emotional style of devotion to their northern storefront. The bulk of the service is taken up by a furious back-and-forth between testimony and gospel singing:
Testify with Jesus,
Testify with Jesus
He will be my comfort,
He will be my guide . . .
Ramona Foster slams down the last chord and Ethel Larks gets up without prompting. "I heard on the radio the other day where this man was on the way to a concert," she says in a ringing voice. "He was driving in his car and he was hit by a tractor-trailer. So if we're goin' somewhere this summer, on vacation or something, we're gonna have to take the Lord God with us!"
Wham! A kid in the back gets up and starts singing "Take the Lord God With You" and Foster finds the key. The song starts out slow, builds and builds until finally the place is quaking like a '64 Chevy in overdrive.
Wham! Young Charles Lucas springs to his feet and starts it up again.
Finally, Foster puts down the brakes and testimony ends. Larks gets up to the altar and says, "We thank the Lord for that fine singing. I haven't heard y'all sing that well in a long, long time." She smiles broadly and introduces the Rev. Lofton's sermon. Charles Lucas, who has thoroughly enjoyed the singing, whispers the eternal churchgoer's impatient lament: "Watch out. The reverend goes on and on. He'll go on for hours if somebody don't stop him."
But the Rev. Lofton keeps it short: 40 minutes.
"Mercy," sighs Lucas.