EARLY IN THE REAGAN administration, Pastor John Steinbruck found himself at a meeting in the Old Executive Office Building to hear about Reaganomics. "Supply- side economics was going to result in an abundant blessing on all churches and congregations," Steinbruck remembers being told. "It would ultimately evidence itself in the offering plates."

When the question period began, Steinbruck's hand shot up. "I said, 'If I, a minister a couple of blocks from the White House, where the floors of my church are covered with the homeless of this neighborhood and this city, if I give more in charitable contributions than President Reagan, that doesn't encourage optimism.'

Steinbruck then asked for a little help with the homeless sleeping in his church -- leftover food from White House banquets. Steinbruck remembers that Morton Blackwell, then a White House staffer, said to call him later. Stein- bruck decided a letter might be more effective and he walked it to the White House. No answer came.

"The following December," Steinbruck continues, "a reporter from the Religious News Service called the White House, Blackwell's office, and she was told, in response to my appeal to give leftovers from state banquets: 'We think the idea is disgusting.'

At least once each year since then, Steinbruck says, he has renewed his request for the leavings of White House dinners, most recently on Oct. 15 in a letter addressed to J. Douglas Holladay, associate director of the White House office of public liaison.

Steinbruck had received no response by Thanksgiving. Holladay told a reporter that unneeded food from state dinners is recycled into other White House food operations and there are no leftovers. Steinbruck's comment: "That's what the military says, too. Everyone knows there's waste."

STEINBRUCK'S Luther Place Memorial Lutheran Church on Thomas Circle wrestles each year with the needs of thousands of home- less people -- the pastor calls them "nomads." In addition to its emergency night shelter for women, Luther Place runs Bethany Women's Center, a day shelter, and participates in a complex of other sheltering services housed in church-owned buildings across N Street.

"We receive leftovers from everywhere," Steinbruck says, "from B'nai B'rith to Pan American Health to government employes' groups . . . We don't own the homeless. They're not simply our responsibility. Let everybody get an invitation to this banquet. Simply glean what's left on the table, go in the kitchen, put it in plastic bags or boxes. We'll pick it up at the back door."

Steinbruck has been applying to the White House for leftovers since Jerry Ford's administration. The White House, he says, is too isolated, "cut off from the real world that's as close as the nearest grate outside." Security measures are part of the problem, he says. "Now they have hand-held missiles. The only thing they haven't done is dig a moat and fill it with piranha . . . "

How, he is asked, would he have presidents protect themselves? He has been waiting for this. "Be just. Be sensitive to the weak and vulnerable all about them. And that's not a clich,e, that's biblical -- that when you don't recognize that your first line of defense is your own people, with priority to those that are weak and hungry . . . then the missile has not been invented that will save us."

STEINBRUCK IS BIG, dark, large-headed and powerfully built. Even in neat black clerical clothes, he looks more like Lech Walesa than a minister. He is almost overwhelmingly fluent, but he still lapses occasionally into the accents of his North Philadelphia youth: "Jeez, I'm tryna remember!"

He holds a Navy Reserve chaplaincy, with the rank of captain, a credential he finds useful when the flag-wavers come around. He recalls with evident pleasure the time he produced his Navy ID card to gain admission to an arms fair at a Washington hotel, where he went from booth to booth, asking, "How many people can this kill?"

He remembers that the defense contractors in the booths "began to get very uncomfortable and they called security and I was invited to leave. I refused, so they called the cops, and they arrested me."

It was not his first arrest. He has been arrested at the South African Embassy protesting apartheid and at the Soviet Embassy protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews, something he does with such regularity that the newspaper Washington Jewish Week headlined its report on the incident "21 Rabbis and Steinbruck Arrested at Soviet Embassy."

Behind the outward protestor is an eclectic evangelism. Steinbruck has been deeply influenced by two theologians: Krister Stendahl, a former dean of Harvard Divinity School who is now the archbishop of Uppsala, Sweden, and Seymour Siegel, a longtime professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Stendahl, author of a noted work on the apostle Paul, believes Christians have no business proselyting among Jews. ("So, sure, it's controversial," Steinbruck says.) Siegel, a conservative and a Jewish nationalist -- Steinbruck doesn't think much of his politics -- helped him to discover the meaning of the Genesis vision and the concept of kiddush haShem, pursuing justice to the point of martyrdom. Synthesized, these concepts go where Steinbruck goes, and Steinbruck seems to be everywhere these days, a gadfly of God.

His central message is to " . . . exemplify that light, that bread, that living water, those metaphors that Jesus used, to live out the truth in a nonviolent way -- not to be on a headhunting crusade or to lead a religious assault group on other groups of people, but simply to do justice, live justly, try, in the space over which you're responsible . . . to create an oasis here just as Abraham and Sarah did in the oaks of Mamre, to which the stranger can come and find refuge . . . "

At times the immensity of the task overwhelms. "We work with very sick people," he says. "To be involved with that day in and day out is wearying . . . There are times when you get beaten up. Things happen. You've got to worry about tuberculosis because people spit in your face."

Sometimes Steinbruck thinks about moving on, should a pulpit be offered in, say, a small city in Washington state or Oregon. It is a "subliminal thought," he says, usually just out of sight in a cul-de-sac of his mind. His wife Erna, who works more than full time as director of Bethany Women's Center and coordinator of the night shelter for a subsistence salary, says they aren't going anywhere. "I keep having in mind this little church on a grassy hill in Iowa," she says. "But I don't know how long he'd survive. People say neither one of us would last more than a week." THE REV. JOHN Steinbruck, took up his ministry at Luther Place Memorial Church in 1970. The church had been a Washington landmark for more than a century, but the riots after the King assassination accelerated the congregation's drift to the suburbs. Charles Solem, a member since 1950 and president of the church council during most of Steinbruck's ministry, says the new pastor found a church ripe for change.

Luther Place had acquired 21,000 square feet of land, including five buildings, along the north side of N Street between 14th Street and Vermont Avenue, with a view to making a parking lot. Yet conveniences solely for the congregation's benefit, fancy services with elaborate music and other rituals of comfort were exactly the trappings Steinbruck opposed.

Soon after he began, Luther Place was approached with a proposal to help set up a black repertory theater. Steinbruck saw this as an opportunity to approach the local community. The proposal was defeated at a congregational meeting.

"You would not believe what showed up at that meeting," Solem says. "I think people who'd been dead for 10 years. That was our first major thing with John, and it was probably his first defeat." Nevertheless, Solem says, church members were made aware of an interesting concept: "We've got a lot of space here. It's only used at 11 o'clock on Sunday morning."

The church was renting out most of its properties on N Street. The block included two houses of prostitution on church property. "We knew we had to deal with this," Steinbruck says. When a pimp threw a prostitute out of a second-story window, the shocked congregation voted to tear down the row houses.

Then there was a rethinking: "All of a sudden," Steinbruck says, "it occurred to us that the way to go was not to close up but to open up. We felt that if our space and our facilities could be used in demonic and antihuman ways, they could also be used in inspirational ways."

What emerged was what Steinbruck calls "the ministries." Today, in the row houses known collectively as the N Street Village, Bread for the City dispenses clothing and emergency food supplies to families. Sarah House, with an advisory board from other churches and synagogues, shelters women and offers social and psychiatric services. Zacchaeus Medical Clinic is staffed by volunteer physicians and health workers. Deborah's Place, in cooperation with eight other congregations, runs a thrift shop and provides a home for women. Bethany Women's Center is a day shelter, providing meals, showers, laundry facilities and work programs. The refrigerator in the Luther Place chapel is filled with donated casseroles and the makings of breakfast for the 80 women who bed down on the floor each night.

About 150 of Luther Place's 400 members are involved in the ministries. They are buttressed by a growing number of volunteers from other churches, a coalition effort Solem calls "a remarkable, remarkable thing, some who aren't even Lutherans, some of them from clear out in the suburbs."

The total budget of the various ministries, several of which raise their budgets separately, comes to $500,000 to $600,000 a year, Solem says. Of this about $135,000 is contributed by Luther Place from members' gifts and friends Steinbruck has recruited. Additional major financial supporters include other churches, synagogues, foundations, government agencies and Parking Management Inc. (which contributes all its profits from its weekday operation of the church parking lot, about $18,000 this year).

The church's own budget of $275,000 is raised from about 300 contributing members and an endowment income of about $30,000. Steinbruck's compensation package for 1985 was $52,000.

Steinbruck is always at work winning support and money for Luther Place: in a single month recently he met with Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Nazarene, United Church of Christ, Episcopal and interfaith groups, spoke at three churches and -- wearing his hat as chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Homeless -- testified before Sen. Arlen Specter's subcommittee on homelessness. In June he returned in triumph to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance, as alumnus of the year to deliver a speech called "The Managerial Theory of Loaves and Fishes."

"The most incredible fund- raiser I've ever known," says Solem of the pastor.

JOHN STEINBRUCK vividly remembers the day his wife cut the Carol Holmes' hair. Erna Steinbruck came out onto the lawn, leading Holmes, who usually used street name, Rosalie. She was an overweight woman who walked like a windup toy because her balance was off, rattling with coughs because her lungs were shot. Steinbruck protected her own head with a plastic garbage bag and slipped two more bags over her hands and arms. Holmes had long curly red hair full of lice.

"It was pretty hair." Erna says, "I had to cut it all off, but it was lovely hair even when it was short."

Holmes died soon after at Hannah House, a shelter run by a Catholic order of Carmelites. Erna Steinbruck says Holmes was turned away by two hospitals and sent back to Hannah House by cab: "And she died there that night. She was 36. She never had a life. She was just very thoughtful, a very good person, and she just wanted simply to have a place of her own."

In June, a rented house at 12th and T streets NW was readied for eight women who had been sleeping at Luther Place and spending their days at the Bethany day shelter. Sponsored by Luther Place, it is called Carol Holmes House.

"I heard someone say, 'You want to know what we ought to be doing, you go listen to Steinbruck on Sunday morning," says Charles Solem. "You want to see how it's done, you go over and see Erna on Monday morning,'

Erna Steinbruck calls it a lot of work. "You have to do everything from be a plumber to a rat catcher to a fund-raiser to a counselor," she says. " . . . The thing is, I have a home . . . Sometimes I'm tempted to do something a lot more sane, but out of gratitude if nothing else, I feel I should stay."

ONLY ONE Steinbruck child, Katie, now 14, is still at home. She is, her mother says, "the apple of her father's eye. She is also John's last test. She just gives him a hard time."

One Sunday last spring, while sermonizing on the honor due to parents, Steinbruck interrupted himself. "Katie," he said, "Stop rolling your eyes." The congregation broke up.

The family home is far from Luther Place, in Northern Virginia, off Shirley Highway. In a gesture that still touches Steinbruck, the congregation helped him finance the house.

"Where do I live?" Steinbruck asks, from his church. "I live here. But you cannot raise children in this environment of prostitutes, hookers, drug pushers, here in this block. I'm not talking 10 blocks north, I'm talking here, on Thomas Circle. You can't throw a ball here, you can't ride a bike here. You can't play hopscotch without bumping into a hooker and whatever else is out on the sidewalk."

IN 1973 Luther Place church, working with two other groups, opened an emergency shelter for the growing numbers of the homeless dumped on the streets by the deinstitutionalization of mental patients. The church still works with the Sojourners Community, but has long since broken with the Community for Creative Non-Violence and Mitch Snyder, the charismatic advocate for the homeless who now heads it. As Solem remembers it, CCNV had phoned some 1,100 area churches asking for space. Luther Place, one of two to respond, opened its basement parish hall.

"We were together for years and complemented each other, I'd like to believe," says Steinbruck of happier days with CCNV. "But there were always ten- sions. They were radical . . . they had feelings on global issues which we didn't agree with, from their tactics on fighting the Vietnam war to their position on Israel and the PLO."

Steinbruck pauses to take a long phone call from a member of the church. When he returns, he says, reflectively: "Pastoral work. That's the other half of a ministry. If you don't do that right, you're not going to be around to do any of the rest, and that's where a lot of pastors make their mistake. That was one of the problems we had with the Community for Creative Non-Violence. They didn't seem to understand that we're not a congregation of radical activists."

Relations with CCNV deteriorated to the point that Luther Place threatened the group with eviction from the church-owned space it occupied, and CCNV moved. "They hurt us. They hurt us badly," Snyder said recently of the break.

TODAY CCNV and Luther Place are in collision again over what Steinbruck sees as a problem and Snyder as a solution: the old building on Second and D streets NW that Snyder fought to renovate at federal expense to shelter at least 700 homeless men and women. Snyder recently lost the support of the White House -- won after his lengthy, much-publicized hunger strike in 1984 -- and sued to prevent the diversion to the District of Columbia of federal money earmarked for renovating the D Street shelter.

Snyder is quick to admit that his ways are not conventional. "We tend not to have contact with official agencies," he said recently. "In our experience, agencies, commissions and reports are used as a way of avoiding doing anything rather than making something happen, not just here in the city, but anywhere. I serve on no board. We're part of no coalition that gathers lots and lots of groups together. We're not interested in the common denominator."

Of that attitude, Erna Steinbruck says, "There's a big piece of me there, too, but I'm older now and I understand that sometimes you have to have patience -- to a point . . . on Second and D. Unfortunately they follow their leader, whose ideas are not quite on target as far as I'm concerned . . . "

Erna terms Snyder's D Street shelter "ridiculous in this day and age" and the housing of men and women in the same building "a loose-goose arrangement." Other shelter providers, she says, favor shelters for no more than 150 people. Alcoholics and addicts should be identified and treated. "We need more men's shelters and they need to be better equipped, but we also need housing and jobs."

JOHN STEINBRUCK is the only one of his parents' several children to survive infancy. He was born with what he calls "a dead left eye" and an allergy to milk. His German-born parents never assimilated, and he started in Philadelphia kindergarten with no knowledge of English. Later, a rickety, bespectacled kid in a working-class neighborhood, he had to wear an iron truss for a hernia and he was forbidden to join in any physical activity -- a ban he rejected. "I played baseball, football, climbed trees, did everything counter to what was prescribed," he says. "I cured myself. It's now the prescribed method."

He dodged the ethnic slurs directed at Germans in America during and after World War II and saw the worst part of war each day with the twice-daily dressing of an unhealed leg wound his father carried from World War I. His childhood church, the Faith Tract Mission, was a dour fundamentalist group whose asceticism, he now says, was predicated on "lousy theology."

He dreamed his way through school and joined the Navy at 17. He soon discovered that what separated enlisted men from officers was education. When his Navy time was up, he returned to Philadelphia and worked his way through the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School of Finance.

To this day, Steinbruck traces a great deal of wrongdoing in this world to people who don't like themselves, a situation he knew well in his college days, when he was "a hellraiser, running around and chasing young women and all the rest of it." Everything seemed to be going wrong. A passionate love affair ended in rejection; he broke his leg twice in a single summer; he was unhappy working as a time/motion expert. He felt "not worthwhile."

Then he met Martin Wisznat, "a person through whom I got a whole different, radical view of what religion was about, that one didn't have to have a frontal lobotomy in order to be religious or to have faith and that religion could be intellectually challenging and stimulating."

Had he been a Roman Catholic, Pastor Wisznat might have been that paradigm of misery, a spoiled priest. "He was both a genius and a Rasputin," Steinbruck says. "It was a terrible personal tragedy. He was possessed of great spiritual and religious vision and at the same time . . . there were a lot of scandals. He was a womanizer. He ended up drinking himself right out of this world. But it was thrilling for me to discover that you could be a human being and be a person of faith."

Erna Guenther was working at that time in a Lutheran settlement house in Philadelphia's inner city. She remembers with amusement Steinbruck's slow discovery of himself. Although working as a junior executive, he was reading everything religious he could get his hands on and, she says, "shopping for religion." When he told her he was thinking of entering a seminary, she laughed.

"I said, 'John, you can't be serious. You just came back to being a churchgoer and suddenly you want to go to seminary. You have to learn so much!' He said, 'So what? I know a lot.'

They were married in his second year as a seminarian. Their first child was born on their second anniversary, "an unscheduled stop," says Erna, "as were the next four."

As a young pastor in Pennsylvania he was "much the same as he is now," Erna Steinbruck says. "I kept thinking, 'Oh, well, he'll mellow with age.'

Steinbruck's first pulpit in a small Pennsylvania Dutch town, was "disastrous," he says. Trouble began when the new minister downed a few beers after softball practice, offending teetotalers in the congregation. Then he refused to join the Lions, Rotary and Exchange clubs -- an obeisance to custom. "After that," he says, "I thought it was healthier to move on."

At his next pastorate in Easton, Pennsylvania, there were wrenching battles, exacerbated, Steinbruck feels, by his immigrant origins: "I was not of their ilk."

Erna Steinbruck remembers the initial visit with the Luther Place congregation in 1969. "There was still that concern: Is this guy going to be only interested in what they call the Social Gospel? They almost said it was a stain, something that branded you as an activist as opposed to someone that just concentrated on saving souls. John said, 'I never separate them.'