The voices of men, women and children mingle in a harmonic chorus of mellow worship as white, black and brown hands wave across the vast blue and white auditorium like wheat bowing to a silent wind.
The joyous scene is not just a Sunday phenomenon. Parishioners at this multi-racial, northeast church claim their lives are enriched spiritually everyday. They claim, for them Evangel Temple's experiment to make the church a vibrant, working part of the community has become visible faith.
The experiment began 12 years ago, when the pastor, the Rev. John Meares, decided it was time his congregation, quit "getting" religion and start "living" their faith. More than two-thirds of his faithful flock responded by walking out.
Now after several desolate years, Church membership is booming and five years ago Evangel Temple was able to build a modern, four-story, multi-million dollar building at 610 Rhode Island Avenue, NE.
This spiritual metamorphosis came about through Pastor Meares' introduction of a more subdued, albeit still emotion-stirring, Bible-teaching ministry. The underpinning of the change is laced with a familiar theme - positive living through God. Under Pastor Meares' guidance, scriptual messages, church activities and community seminars emphasize the individual's relationship with God, the family, the larger church family and one's vocation.It is a formula, according to Pastor Meares, that has God's blessing.
"If these four relationships are not in order, and we believe God is deeply interested in these four, then it affects the whole relationship," he said.
The Evangel Temple message is carried in Sunday and midweek sermons by visiting evangelists, by Pastor Meares and by the assistance pastors, his sons Virgil and Donnie Meares.
A Christian Training Institute was developed to teach Bible and academic courses. Free community seminars offer a wide range of self-help lectures. An alternative, nationally tested, Christian education system, was instituted last year for grades one through twelve. And a church-based personal counseling center, directed by Donnie Meares, has reorganized its programs to meet the complex needs of today's society.
The transformation of Evangel Temple may sound almost miraculous, but Pastor Meares has a different view. In a recent national survey by a news magazine, he said, the church was listed 23rd among factors influening the life of a community.
"The churches have abdicated a big responsibility in the community," he said. "We're also realizing that the government can no longer solve all our social ills. The best the government can do is something about the environment. The church can do something about the person within."
Adopting this ideal, Virgil Meares, director of the pastoral counseling program which introduces new parishoners to the philosophy of the church, said the ministry is constantly developing programs that will make the church the number one influence, not the 23rd, within the Washington community.
"You can be very apt in preaching the word of God but it's a different situation when you deal with prevalant societal problems," said Donnie Meares.
According to the staff, more than 200 persons use the various counseling programs at Evangel Temple annually. While many of the people seeking counseling have some religious background, most lack an understanding of the scriptures and the answers they provide for their problems, said the staff. "(But) we believe the Gospel," added Virgil Meares.
Part of Evangel Temple's success has been in the willingness of other local churches to work with them.
"The churches are coming together," said Pastor Meares excitedly. This growing solidarity was markedly evident at last year's opening of the Christian Training Institute, said David Longobardo, Institute director. Some 342 students from 58 different churches took classes. And this year the Institute plans to expand by offering courses in business education, he said.
ACE, also is expanding. The school boasted 56 students last year and enrollment is expected to triple in 1978. Nine fulltime instructors conduct classes five days a week, aided by volunteers from other churches. Students work at their own pace from standardized textbooks which cover liberal arts subjects and include Bible scriptures and illustrations to help develop Christian character.
The emphasis on Christian morality has also captured the attention of the business community, said Pastor Meares. Recently local businessmen have expressed a desire to recruit employees from the church because they evidence the kind of personality and integrity employers are seeking.
Another program on the upswing is Evangel Temple's ministry for the elderly directed by church staff member Alfred Washington.
Services provided for the elderly include a daily, telephone ministry to check on people confined to their homes, housekeeping services for the sick, carpools and resource counseling to help the elderly get Social Security benefits, food stamps, etc. About 75 to 100 elderly people are visited monthly and aided through these programs, said Washington.
The man behind all the programs, Pastor Meares, grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and never expected to be pastor of an inner city church, where his congregation not only would include blacks, but Spanish-speaking persons and other minorities. But once he took the first step, there was no looking back.
Over the years, Pastor Meares admits, his ministry has broadened even more, taking on an international focus and involvement. He is a member of the World Council of Churches, and as a member of a Pentcostal Church Council, he was asked by the Vatican to join the dialogue in explaining the differences between the Catholic and Pentecostal churches.
When speaking about his ministry Pastor Meares alludes to the joy and excitement he feels in cultivating a spirtual garden in the church and the inner city. Referring to the world as "the marketplace" he said, every aspect of the life of an individual who has seriously committed himself to the principles of Christian living should be endowed with the Holy Spirit's creative energy for the glory of God.
"God is a creative God," he explained, "When he breathes upon us we become creative. We expect in the future to motivate the faith of our people.
(But) no, we're not pleased yet," he said of the church's present thrust. "We're just getting started."