The first of the honors for the Southeast Vicariate Cluster was symbolic: Archbishop James A. Hickey came to the organization's anniversary party last November. In June, the United Way made the group a member agency and gave it $20,000. Last month, the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Asociation gave the cluster a community service award.

The group's volunteers spent three years operating on a shoestring, donating their nights and weekends to meetings, writing letters, making phone calls. Now, after the recent recognition, they look forward to more of the same.

The story of the Southeast Cluster, whose most widely known work has been advocacy for tenants on housing issues, is not that different from the stories of many other volunteer groups in Washington: People getting together in hopes of making a difference. "There's a sense of pride in ourselves," says Catherine Williams, president of the organization, "because we've been able to help ourselves."

The Southeast Cluster is a coalition of 13 Catholic and Protestant churches east of the Anacostia River, formed three years ago when pastors decided some issues could be be handled by churches, not just social service agencies.

The cluster decided against seeking federal or city government funds, instead relying on donations from the member churches and private foundations. "We wanted a sense of ownership," says Williams, 40, a mother of five whose pastor at St. Thomas More Catholic Church encouraged her to become involved with the then-fledgling organization.

The organization exists primarily to help the 6,000 families of its member churches learn to become advocates for themselves, officials of the cluster say, and to bring about social change through the values of the Gospel. It is based at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church at 2700 O St. SE.

The cluster, according to John Carr, secretary for social concerns of the Archdiocese of Washington, "has strong roots in the community. The folks are real folks, not experts or outsiders who'll analyze the issues. They're people in the community who talk about schools and taxes."

"It's an excellent example of a new version of 1960s advocacy, or an attempt by a new generation to organize neighborhoods to organize themselves," said Jim Kalish, who heads the Washington Council on Agencies.

One example of the kind of work the cluster does is the Bass Circle Tenants Association, which the Cluster helped form in April 1980.

Denise Belton, chairman of the cluster's tenant coalition and a resident of Bass Circle, says the privately owned, low- and moderate-income housing complex at 4505 B St. SE had mice, roaches, leaking bathroom pipes, falling plaster and, often, no heat in winter. She says the tenants called numerous meetings with little response from the landlord, whom they never met (ownership has subsequently changed).

The cluster taught Bass Circle residents how to research ownership at the office of the Recorder of Deeds. They also learned about the Rental Accommodations Office, tenants' rights, how to contact housing inspectors, how to send out newsletters and general organizing skills.

The cluster has, according to its officials, created more than 20 tenant associations. On other issues, the group has lobbied to increase police patrols of the Southeast area and sponsored the Friends of D.C. Village, a program in which volunteers visit and work with residents of the city nursing home.

Like many members, Catherine Williams had a history as a volunteer before she was persuaded to get involved with the cluster, where, a colleague says, she "blossomed."

She was born and raised in Southeast, she says, and joined the Parent-Teacher Association when her son entered Kenilworth Elementary School in 1964.

Gradually, she became active in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charity. "Basically it was Band-Aid services," Williams says. "It helped the hurt after it was there."

Williams, who has attended church regularly since she was a child, says there was a point in her life, "a low point," when she wasn't practicing her faith. One Sunday, she overheard her daughters calling her a hypocrite, because she stayed home while making them go to church. "So I started going again. Not all the time, but gradually more and more. Faith is like a thirst: the more you drink, the more you want."

Faith, she says, is a big part of why she is involved with the cluster, why she sometimes gives two-dozen hours a week to meetings. "The fact that we are church-based means a lot to a lot of us," she says. "You have to have faith in something and my faith is basically in God.

"That's the beautiful part of the cluster. The church is not just a place in the community, but part of it." graphics /photo: Southeast Vicariate Cluster members,