The singing and praying and exhorting and fevered, impromptu sermonizing had been going on for almost 2 1/2 hours. "She will be here soon," they kept saying from the pulpit as longer and longer blades of summer afternoon sunlight sliced through the stained glass. The old building seemed to swell and then fall with a terrible expectation. Maybe she wouldn't make it at all.

And then suddenly she was there. The airplane had delivered her from Boston, just as promised.

It was 6:30 last evening. Winn-Nee, Winn-Nee, they were screaming. MAN-DELA. MAN-DELA. It seemed a kind of instantaneous poetry, pent up, released now. Yes, the oldest black place of worship within the original 10 square miles of Washington, D.C., had kept its promise: The spouse of Nelson Mandela had come to take part in a tribute to South African women at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church at 1518 M St. NW.

Frederick Douglass and Paul Laurence Dunbar and Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt and Alain Locke and Martin Luther King Jr. had worshiped here in their time, but this was Winnie's time.

Winn-Nee, Winn-Nee. MAN-DELA. MAN-DELA.

They brought her in through a side door. There were phalanxes of security. If there seemed a moment of pandemonium as she entered, there also appeared a calm at her particular center. She raised her fist and pumped it twice in the holy air. She pumped it again. Her face split in the hugest grin. It was a wonderful smile, a smile almost -- though not quite -- the warming equal of her husband's smile, though you wouldn't say as gentle.

She was garbed in black and maroon, head to toe. The dress, traditional African in style, had big puffy shoulders. She wore a necklace that looked made of shells, or perhaps dry wood, maybe olive wood, but which in any case bounced light from tiny jewels, green and other colors.

Her sleeves split at an angle just above her forearms, and you were able to see -- practically marvel at -- the large brown muscular limbs. This is the 55-year-old woman who once wrote that after her mother died, and while she was still a child in rural Pondoland, "I had to leave school for half a year to work in the fields; I milked cows and looked after our own sheep and goat, and I had to harvest the crops, our mealies -- that's where the bulk of the muscles comes from."

But of course she was referring on that page to physical muscle, not spiritual.

The spiritual muscle seemed to show itself now. She spoke simply and slowly and forcefully. There was nothing powerful about this rhetoric. "My grandmother was a worshiper in this particular church," she said, referring to the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. She said she was more proud than she could say to be on these premises. She said -- with only the barest smile -- that she would have liked to have made it a lot earlier, but her oppressors on another continent had kept her away. "I must point out to you at my age, as the grandmother I am," she said, "that this is the first time I have been able to leave ... because of apartheid."

She stood for much of her 15 minutes in the pulpit with her arms behind her, legs apart, a little like a cop on a sidewalk.

Some people had been waiting for a glimpse of her since noon. Some had been seated inside Metropolitan AME since 2 p.m., when the doors first opened to the press and to the elderly. Every seat was to be taken, of course. Hundreds of people were never to get inside, were never to get past the yellow tapes of police ribbons.

There were gawkers in jeans and T-shirts but there were many more in Sunday finery, with broad straw hats and colorful dresses. In a sense, it was just a Sunday, just a go-to-meeting.

At 3 p.m. yesterday, the lines of people waiting to get in were stretched all the way down M Street. The lines hooked left onto 16th. They kept going.

The police later estimated the inside crowd at 2,500, which strained capacity and was probably an underestimate, and there were moments when you wondered if Metropolitan's fine old wooden balcony -- which rims the entire body of the church -- was going to come crashing down just like Jericho's walls.

More than four hours before Winnie showed, Mary Morrison, Metropolitan member for half a century, sat stoically in a middle pew. She wasn't budging. She has arthritis now and her eyes are bad. She wore a bright yellow dress and a loose white head wrap. A large straw purse was beside her. An aluminum cane was propped against the back of the pew in front of her.

"Well, I joined in '42, and this is 1990," she said. "That's 48 years, isn't it? I'm not as active as I used to be, but I do try to come every first Sunday for communion. I try not to miss that. They let me in early today because I have a handicap, and I guess they thought I was going to fall out."

This edifice itself, the dark holy smell of it: It is a church simple in design, understated, brick on the outside, wood on the inside, with polished pews and purple cushions and gleaming gold collection plates. It dates its original congregations to 1820. It once harbored fugitive slaves on the Underground Railway. Yesterday there were no slaves at Metropolitan and there were no fugitives. This was a people fairly shouting its freedom.

Celebrity and fame and myth and legend are so intertwined with Winnie Mandela, exactly as with her husband. It seems so hard to parcel it all out. One saw only one face and heard only one sound yesterday: the face of triumph, the sound of adulation. And yet one forgets at one's peril, in the glory of a swept-away moment, that this is a highly complex woman, and an often controversial one, who has been linked in her recent past to militant oratory and to cadres of violent people (defended by some as "bodyguards"), and, yes, to a sometimes seemingly erratic behavior. The "Mother of the Nation" had the bad judgment several years ago to build a splendiferous California-style house practically within stone-toss of Soweto matchboxes, where her countrymen dwelled.

"There is an anger that wakes up in you when you are a child and it builds up," Winnie Mandela once wrote.

If one wanted just famous faces yesterday, there were plenty of others besides Winnie's. Effi Barry was there. In her remarks -- though that's a pale word for the fire with which she spoke -- she said she was unable -- no, unwilling -- to hide her tears. "But my eyes could not contain their tears today," she said, speaking of the moment earlier in the afternoon when the plane from Boston with its mythic cargo touched down on the tarmac and the door opened, and there they were. Barry spoke of the paradox of a powerless man locked up behind prison walls whose fame and myth just grew and grew.

Jacqueline Jackson, wife of Jesse, spoke. Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women. Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women. Charlene Drew Jarvis of the D.C. Council. Jarvis got a roar when she talked of Nelson Mandela as being the man who can "bring Ted Koppel to the point where he's practically paralyzed." She was referring to last Thursday night's edition of "Nightline" in which Koppel did indeed seem to be struck momentarily speechless by the 71-year-old man sitting beside him.

The woman who seemed to sneak up on the crowd yesterday, in the time before Winnie arrived, was Patricia DeVeaux, wife of Metropolitan's pastor. She should have her own church. She was clad all in white, with a flaming red carnation. She wore a white hat with a net. Her rhetoric was flaming too. She spoke of "the wonder of Winnie." DeVeaux was all fever and class. She was the warm-up, and they couldn't get enough of it.

Yesterday's event at Metropolitan, sans Nelson, was officially a celebration in honor of all South African women, but really it was about Winnie. All those who spoke yesterday were regularly interrupted with shouts of "Right!" and "Go Ahead!" from the congregation. The guest of honor herself brought it truly down when she said, "We need your prayers. We need you to help us, to teach us, how you tolerated racism."

At another point she pounded the podium, two times, three times, four times. "Keep the pressure on. Keep the pressure on. Keep the pressure on," she said, her voice suddenly deep.

At 7 p.m. she came out into the evening light, arm raised and fist clenched. She ambled into the middle of the street to her quarters at the Madison, where her husband waited. It reminded you suddenly of Jimmy Carter parading down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day. An iconographic moment.