It was the ultimate church supper. Last night's first Africare Bishop John T. Walker Memorial Dinner at the Sheraton Washington Hotel was a time for warm greeting of old friends. Everyone knew everyone. And of course everyone knew Maria Walker, the bishop's widow.
"It's been a rough year," she said. "It's hard. He died so suddenly. I'm still trying to figure out what to do."
The 1,400 guests were there to help. The $100-a-plate dinner was a benefit for Africare, a private organization that sends aid to needy African nations. Bishop Walker was its chairman for more than 16 years, until his death from a heart attack last year.
"You know, he never missed more than two meetings!" exclaimed Africare Executive Director C. Payne Lucas. "Everyone knew what he did in America, but no one knows what he did for Africa. He taught in Uganda. He helped in South Africa and predicted freedom in his lifetime. He could see the good in everything. He never looked for the negative. John Walker had this enormous spirit. Everybody was better once John Walker touched them.
"And," Lucas added softly, "he never raised his voice."
It was a gentle evening, set to the joyous music of Bayeza, a six-piece mbaqanga ensemble from New York. Guests dined on poached salmon and stuffed chicken breasts and listened to the kind words of colleagues, friends and acquaintances who shared the bishop's interest in saving the children of Africa, and the rest of the world.
WJLA news anchor Renee Poussaint told the audience she "put off writing what I was going to say tonight because every time I sat down to write those words, I couldn't -- because it hurt too much. ... Every cause, every committee that was for change -- somehow, with his twinkling eyes and his patient smile, he was there. ...
"He didn't pretend to have all the answers. No 30-second sound bites for me to take back to the 11 o'clock news -- although there were times I begged him to. Our lives, he said, were too complicated for that."
Effi Barry sneaked in late and kept a low profile, stating quietly that it was her "duty as an Episcopalian to attend a dinner honoring such a wonderful and well-respected man."
House Majority Whip William Gray III (D-Pa.) was on the lighter, if not whimsical, side.
"All the members of Congress were out on a boat in the Potomac today -- during the storm," said the chairman of the House Budget Committee, retelling the hottest joke on Capitol Hill. "The boat capsized. The word went out. 'Who was saved? Who was saved?' And the word came back: 'The American people!' "
He continued. "Every day Saddam Hussein goes into a room and says, 'Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the baddest of them all?' And every day he comes out smiling. The other day, though," continued the congressman-cum-comedian, "he came out and his aides said they heard him muttering, 'Who's Newt Gingrich?'
"Yes," Gray said, "things are rough on Capitol Hill. That's why I'm honored to be here tonight."