The Rev. Willie B. Allen is at a high point in his life
Upper Room Baptist Church, which he founded here 21 years ago, now has a membership of 2,000. Most Baptist chuches of that size have a century of history behind them.
Allen also heads the most politically powerful group of clergy in the area, the more than 300 member Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, D.C., and Vicinity.
His son, the rev. Vincent Allen, 25, is his copastor. His wife is Anita Allen, former head of the D.C. School Board. Recently, Anita Allen was elected head of the minister's sister group, the Baptist Ministers Wives and Widows Association of Washington, D.C., and Vicinity. The Allens are the first husband-and-wife pair to head the groups simultaneously.
His older brother, the Rev. Andrew Allen, has headed the First Baptist Church of Deanwood in Northeast for 30 years. The elder Allen and his brother are well known in Washington Baptist Circles as "Big Allen" and "Little Allen," respectively.
Upper Room Baptist, which Allen established in a Southeast storefront two decades ago, dedicated its new large sanctuary building at 60 Burns Ave. NE in 1969. It sits on one of nearly two blocks of property owned by the church.
Allen started the church with 13 unchurched people. "Two of those were my sons," he recalled earlier this week.
Since then unchurched people have accounted for a large number of Upper Room's members. Allen says that early in his ministry he once baptized 127 people at a time. "Over the years it dropped," said Allen. "One time I remember baptizing 60. One time 40. Now, we average 15 baptisms a month," still a considerable number.
Allen says he has no complaints about his life. He believes he is success story. "My life is really miraculous." At age 32, Allen was a railroad coach cleaner in Richmond, and worked part-time as a postal clerk. He began his ministry the day his son Vincent was born, he says.
"Vincent was born on Friday," Allen recalled. "That night I just got the calling. I knew I was going to be a preacher . . . . My family was scared to death."
he never went back to the railroad. His brother Andrew made him write his first sermon eight times and threw them all away. "On the ninth time, if he had thrown it away, I was ready to quit. He told me that this time it was between me and God. It's been that way ever since."
Twelve years ago Allen told a reporter he had no idea why his church was so sucessful. Earlier this week his assessment was still much the same, calling it "a miracle from God."
He came to Washington 25 years ago, and was soon called to the old established Bethlehem Baptist Church in Southeast. He left it a few years later.
"They were a very hard congregation to manage," Allen recalled. A conflict arose within the membership and Allen was afraid they might split to form a new church, so he left and formed one himself. That church became Upper Room.
Allen said many Bethlehem members wanted to follow him, as is common in such situations, but he would not allow them to until six months had passed. "I didn't want to be in a postion of stealing from another church," he said.
Despite the success of Upper Room, Allen cannot forget the church's leaner years.
For nearly half of its life, the congregation met in an old sanctuary across the street from the present one. The group still owns and runs it as a kindergarten day center.
In one corner of a back room is a floor-to-ceiling structure which looks as if it conceals plumbing or something mechanical. Actually, it hides a floor-to-ceiling stack of folding chairs, which Allen bought for $1 a piece some years ago in the hope that one day they might be useful.
Allen has talked the church into buying an old paint store next door to the old sanctuary in the hope of remodelling it into a day care center for the elderly. "Someday I'll need those chairs," said Allen.
Allen is also fired up about the latest in a string of campaigns he has launched over the years to get his congregation to bring in 1,000 "unsaved souls."
It's hard to be humble when you're rich," Allen said of his periodic efforts to keep the prosperous church from becoming a closed-in exclusive club, thereby stunting its growth. "The church should be in the business of salvation, not some of the other things we get into, like politics and social gatherings," he said.
But the church and its minister make room for both. Earlier this month, the church held a banquet honoring Allen's 25 years as a minister and its own 21st anniversary. The banquet was held at a posh Capitol Hill hotel.
Allen and the ministers confererence spent a lot of time earlier this year "urging" Mayor Walter E. Washington to run for reelection.
Last Wednesday Allen gave his personal endorsement to the City Council chairman campaign of Council member Douglas Moore, even though the ministers' conference would not officially endorse Moore.
Allen says his involvement in political campaigns is not for personal gain but out of a sense of "personal responsibility." He says he is worried about drives to legalize gambling and homosexual marriage in the city and that the candidates he supports will "put things right."
Earlier this year, Allen delivered the opening prayer at the ceremony announcing the candidacy of Moore's opponent, City Councilman Arrington Dixon. Much as he did this week at Moore's ceremony, Allen said he was appearing as an "individual minister," not in his official capacity as the head of the minister's conference.
The ministers' conference regularly allows representatives of charity groups and political groups to speak before its Monday meetings. Campaign aides circulating petitions for mayoral hopefuls are at the meetings regularly.
He says that before his election to the presidency of the minsters' conference two years ago" the conference used to take positions on all sorts of things. I've tried to discourage that."
He says that he has a fear of injuring his name by talking for the record to newspaper reporters. He watched his wife "take awful abuse" during her years with the school board. "She put her name to the things she believed in and suffered for it." Allen is clearly still smarting from his wife's experience, saying he "misses it with joy."