A visitor to the Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ is likely to be surprised when George Keys, the "official greeter" offers a warm handshake and a hearty welcome at the church threshold.
He might also be surprised to see the high level of activity on the church grounds at 4704 13th St. NW, even on a rainy morning.
The nearly 1,500 church members at Peoples Church participate in scores of activities there ranging from the youth orchestra to real estate and investment seminars.
Dr. A. Knighton Stanley, church pastor, has goals for his congregation. "So many black churches have maintained their congregations at the level they are. We try to stay in front of where we think black Americans should be going."
He means it. It isn't unusual for Stanley in his charcoal (he's tired of black) academic robe to speak from his pulpit about the need for the children to be exposed to more culture and less TV.
And he brings the arts to the children. "We want our children to remember when the orchestra 'came to see me,'" Stanley said. "We want more to happen in "my (the child's) space."
The children of Peoples Church dance with the Rhythmic Darlings, very young children who use body movements to interpret religious themes, they learn black culture in the Sunday church school and they might play a drum or tambourine in the Little Rhythm Band.
The Chancel Choir, a Bible study group, or the bridge club keep the adults at Peoples Church occupied, unless they're selling tickets to black drama at The Rep Inc. The church buys out an entire show of each performance to assist the black repertory theater on Georgia Avenue.
According to Stanley, the women, the men and the youth, it is the warmth of the congregation that keeps them coming back.
"I like the family-type friendliness here," said Phil Williams, who spends most of his free time at the church. "It meant a lot to me especially after my wife died. Everybody helped me raise my daughters."
"A lot of people stay because they feel the warmth of an extended family, said Henriene Martin, a congregation member for 26 years, "The church speaks to the needs of the people. If there's something we need, we bring it up."
"For instance," said Martin, "we noticed there were a lot of fat people here. So we started a chapter of Overeaters Anonymous that meets here every Saturday. We have an Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets here, too."
Stanley calls his church "the friendliest church in town." And watching him wade through crowds after services proves he is not exaggerating. Calling out to everyone by name, he hugs and kisses people and asks about their sick and elderly.
"Dr. Stanley has a very personal relationship with his congregation here. It's just a warm church," said Ethelyne Lewis."As soon as I stepped in the door here (23 years ago) I knew this was my church."
Her son, Ernest, 19, travels throughout the country performing with the Rhythmic Choir, an adult, professional version of the Rhythmic Darlings. "Did Ernest tell you he won a scholarship today at the Martin Luther King Celebration?" Ethelyne Lewis adds, to Ernest's dismay.The scholarship given by the church, will pay for his second semester at Howard University where he studies engineering.
Angela Martin, Henriene's daughter, dances with the Rhythmic Choir also. At 17, she is assistant choreographer and assistant director of Velma Addison, the originator of this "rhythmic" style of dance.
Stanley says he is not surprised that so many of the church's youth are involved in the arts. "This is nothing new to black people," he said. "Many of our most distinguished writers and artists got their starts in some small black church."
Stanley's quest to learn more and more black history led to his upcoming book, "The Children is Crying." "It deals with the spirit of Congregationalism after the Civil War up to 1926," Stanley said. The book's title and some of the content came from roughly written letters of a slave, Jack Blade, he said.
Stanley came to Peoples Church 11 years ago from his position as Chaplain at the University of South Carolina, where he taught Jesse Jackson.
Stanley came to Peoples Church 11 years ago from his position as chaplain at the University of South Carolina, where he taught Jesse Jackson.
Stanley wanted to "try something new and exciting" of Peoples Church. "In our worship we attempt to bring together the best in African and European traditions. The group we serve is part and parcel to this tradition," he said. "You'll notice our music reflects this too."
Th emusic and the method of worship are only the wrappings of Stanley's mission. "I want blacks to develop a sense of 'self.' We should be moving toward the development of the people.
"As one of my colleagues said, 'What good is having the right to sit at a counter and eat with whites' if you can't pay for what you eat?' We're experiencing a new evolution and churches should play a part. After all, the church in the black community remains one of the few institutions we have control over."