The Community of Christ in the Mount Pleasant area of Northwest Washington is proving that an organization does not have to be large to get things done.
The group sponsors full-time training of seven retarded adults, its members take turns cooking a Saturday afternoon meal for more than 100 poor people and it provides thousands of dollars in scholarships each year for neighborhood children to attend a Montessori school that the community helped to establish at 1459 Columbia Rd. NW.
"We feel people in our own community should get what we have to give," said Bill Anderson, 66, treasurer of the 30-member group, most of whom are in their 30s.
The church building at 3166 Mount Pleasant St. NW is one of the most cheerful on a colorful street. "LA CASA," "The Sign of Jonah," read two lines of bold print that run across the wide, yellow brick facade.
"It used to be a nightclub. But we kept the old sign because 'la casa' means 'house'. 'The Sign of Jonah' was the name of a craft shop we used to run," said Community member Bruce Johnson, 35.
Recently, Margaret Ann Hoven sat in the morning sun amid steel shelving, weathered sawhorses and school books of the Life Skills Center she founded on the church's second floor.
"The Community of Christ helps facilitate people's dreams. Three people in the church are my support group, sort of like a board of directors," she said.
Hoven, 28, a member of the group since 1969, taught retarded children and adults at a private institution before fellow church members helped her concentrate her efforts on adults.
"My students live at home with their parents. They need skills that will help them be self-sufficient and independent. . . You can't learn to cook if you're sitting in a room full of desks," she said. Her students range in age from 22 to 47.
"The church gives me $1,800 a year. The rest comes from American Lutheran Churches. I don't get a cent of government money. After they reach 21, there aren't many funds available," she said.
Since July, Hoven's center has not been able to pay the $200 rent for its two large rooms plus kitchen and bath. Rarely can Hoven scrape up more than $50. No one at the church has bothered to calculate how much "rent assistance" the center has received during its four-year tenancy.
The $1,800 grant is separate.
The two other spaces in the building are rented to nonprofit or cause-oriented organizations at less-than-market rent. Rent from those and profit from a recently sold townhouse are given to another church group that buys and renovates rundown houses and turns then back to tenants as nonprofit condominiums with low-interest church loans.
At least 10 other neighborhood charities receive annual grants from the Community of Christ.
The sanctuary, in which sunlight is bent into orange and yellows by glass-like, plastic collage windows, has the atmosphere of an art studio. Along the walls are soldered metal sculpture and the baseboards are half-hidden by rows of standing are objects, representing the time and imagination of congregation members.
The ecumenical service is notable for its casualness. The altar is an old table dragged to the center of the room each Sunday and covered with a cloth.
"There is much singing and the homily is sometimes good, sometime bad, depending on which of us gives it, said Dora Johnson, 39. The church has had no pastor for about 18 months and no move to seek one is apparent.
During the Eucharist, one of the community's four ordained ministers or seminarians leads the service. "Some of us feel uncomfortable with just any of us serving communion," Johnson said.
The original church was started in February 1965, in a Dupont Circle basement by a Washington minister and his wife John and Mary Schramm who had had a disagreement with his suburban Lutheran congregation. "They the parishioners felt the church should give up on the city and build in the suburbs," said Dor. Johnson, who joined the Schramms and seven others in 1966.
"He Schramm picked Dupont Circle because he wanted to affiliate with the American Lutheran Churches and not encroach on an established Lutheran church's territory," Johnson said. The church has retained its Lutheran affiliation, but the service has little Lutheran Liturgy. Its members include a former Benedictine, a Wesley seminarian and former adherents of many different denominations.
Last year, John and Mary Schramm retired to a farm.
A rotating group of two to four members of the congregation spends about every 10th Saturday cooking and serving a meal to as many as 130 poor people fed during the week as part of a program of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
"For two years in a row, we are spending a Saturday a month cooking," Johnson said. Then some parishioners at Grace Luthern Church offered to help.
"When we serve the meal, we don't mingle with the people as much as we'd like to. We still fit the donor-donee scene: the white middle-class and the blacks at the bottom of the heap. So we don't feel we should impose ourselves on them," Johnson said.
"But it's pleasant enough on the surface. They always say lots of thank yous. We all make plenty of smiles.
"That's all any of us should have a right to expect," she said.