"Bill Wendt is in truth responsible for me being here and being able to do the things I'm able to do today," D.C. Councilman Marion Barry told the congregation of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church about their pastor yesterday.
It was one of many tributes offered to the Episcopal priest and activist, the Rev. William A. Wendt, as he celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.
The battered old church building at 16th and Newton was decked with balloons and rainbow-hued crepe paper streamers for the occasion and a Mexican mariachi band provide the music for the 10 a.m. service that launched the celebration.
The Rt. Rev. Paul Moore, Jr., Episopal bishop of New York and a long-time friend of Father Wendt, praised him as prophet, priest and pastor.
"Bill has always been a prophet and still is," said Bishop Moore. "Bill always pushed us a little farther than we wanted to go."
The bishop, a former Washington was the first of many speakers to praise Father Wendt's leadership in the early days of the civil rights movement and his enlisting other clergy in the battle.
Washington Post columnist William Raspberry observed that many of the reforms for which the priest fought have become so widely accepted today that it is hard to recall that problems ever existed.
"When risky things turn out well we forget the risk involved by the people who did them," he said. He noted that in the first things Bill Wendt stuck his neck out for was the (racial) integration of Rock Creek Cemetery. Today it seems like such a simple thing, but he had to take on his own church to do it." The cemetery is controlled by the Epsicopal Church.
Sterling Tucker praised Father Wendt's pastoral manner as well as his community leadership. "Bill tells us that we're OK. So much of life tells us we're OK . . . when he tells us we are okay it helps us to make the most of our lives."
Testimonials to Father Wendt came from people in all walks of life, from city councilmen and bishops to housemaids and school teachers. Father Wendt, squatting on the steps to the altar, listened gravely to all of them and responded to each with a warm embrace or handshake.
The roster of speakers symbolized many causes Father Wendt has fought for in his 17 years at St. Stephen's housing and community services for the underprivileged, equal rights for women in both church and society, opposition to the war in Vietnam, nutrition programs for the elderly.
Despite the balloons, the music and the tributes, yesterday's celebration was bitter-sweet in that it also marked the beginning of a six-month leave of absence from which he will probably not return to St. Stephen's.
He will use the six months to study and work in the area of death and dying. He said if he can develop a full-time ministery in that field, he will not resume his role as a parish priest.
Dan Leviton, another speaker yesterday, said he got to know Father Wendt when he took Leviton's courses on aging and death at the University of Maryland.
"If and when I am dying," Leviton said," one of the people I want to be present, along with my wife and kids is Bill Wendt."