Luther Place Memorial Church is a neo-Gothic edifice of magnificent brownstone; it is on Thomas Circle, an area bus tling with prostitutes and pimps, drug pushers and vagrants. Pastor John Steinbruck calls the neighborhood "the right place for Christian ministry," and he views his church as "an oasis in the asphalt desert of Washington." He cites the hospitality biblical Abraham and Sarah gave to the strangers who turned out to be angels; he says that in every instance one helps strangers, they are angels.
"Jesus was homeless, an itinerant," Steinbruck says. "His companions were exiles, the sick and the hungry." In the 13 years of Steinbruck's ministry, Luther Place has become what officials call "a safety net" for people who have nowhere else to go. On any night, up to 40 homeless women sleep on mattresses placed on the chapel's floor. On N Street, the church sponsors a "village" of townhouses: the Day Center, for women to sew, do their laundry, talk to counselors or just rest; Sarah House, for up to 20 homeless or mentally disturbed women; Raoul Wallenberg House, for families evicted; Deborah House, for helping women to return to an independent life; Zaccheus Medical Clinic, for providing health care for 5,000 indigents a year; and a free store that distributes food and clothing.
"We care for the urban nomads, the refugees of the street," he says. "This church is a secure place for them." Walking around the block, he trades greetings with prostitutes. (They are allowed to use the church's bathrooms but the prostitutes do not want Steinbruck on their turf: his clerical collar discourages clients.)
He chats with a bag lady named Michelle. "In the winter we give her a hat and a pair of gloves, but she returns without them," he says. "She gives them away to people she thinks need them more."
He chides a derelict for drinking. "Robert is intelligent, a lovely human being," he says. "He comes from a fine family, with a brother who has a PhD. But he can't pull himself together."
"The worst crime is not to care," Steinbruck says. "We presume to be the hosts, but we become the guests, as these people bring us into the Kingdom of God. God always acts in solidarity with the weak and the poor. This church would be long gone without the homeless it helps."