The unusual Monday fare at Trinidad Baptist Church on Benning Road NE is southern fried chicken and fish, cornbread and sweet potato pie accompanied by the long, moving prayers of elderly men who sing as they preach and draw hearty baritone choruses of "Amen" from their colleagues each time they pause.
Monday mornings is the preachers' day at Trinindad.It is the day when many of the city's black clergymen come to meetings of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, D.C. and Vicinity, one of the largest churchmen's groups in the area.
For most of the 100 or so present each week, it is a time to enjoy fellowship over homecooked food, discuss the week's news and talk shop and exchange the latest ministerial information and techniques in much the same way musicians used to gather at Blue Monday jam sessions.
It is the presence of suuch ministers that has made Monday morning house at Trinidad political fellowships a s well, even though the pastors of some of the largest congregations in the city are not active members of the conference.
For years, black clergymen have been considered influential members of the community, especially in southern cities-and in many respects, black Washington is an overgrown southern town. In the absence of politics, the churchmen have been indigenous ward heelers, and block captains of sorts, as well.
Their congregations contain some of the city's most dependable registered voters, and their congregations have provided energetic volunteers for several campaigns. Traditionally one of the strongest institutions in the black community, churches have built-in information networks that often rival the effectiveness of major media organizations in getting the word out to people.
The political clout of Washington's clergyman was seriously challenged following last year's primary election. Most of the ministers supported Walter E. Washington for reelection as mayor and Douglas E. Moore for City Council chairman. Both men lost.
But with the May 1 special election to fill two seats on the City Council and one on the school board less than a month away, the signs of politicians courting the church vote are again becoming as common a Monday morning sight at Trinidad as the latest styles in church robes hanging on the doors.
Ministers coming to next week's meeting are as likely to hear campaign spiels from Ward 4 hopeful Charlene Drew Jarvis and at-large candidate Hector Rodriguez as they are to be told by the conference president, the Rev. James E. McCoy of St. Paul Baptist Church, the telephone number of a realtor with seven churches for sale.
And anyone who wanted to eat the fish dinner at the long table right in fron of the kitchen window last Monday would have been breaking cornbread with former council member Douglas E. Moore, who sat in the middle of the table, with his plate of fish flanked by a large jar of hot sauce and a huge glass of iced tea. Moore is running for the City Council at-large seat.
Jarvis plans to make her pitch next week, even though, she said, the political potency of the church is sometimes overrated.
"Every vote in this election counts so you have to touch base with people who are influencers of people," she said. "you don't want to offend anybody, and if they are bastions of strength, you have some strength if they are with you."
John Ray, who is running for City Council at-large, also plans to talk to the conference members soon. Last week, his campaign sponsored a large prayer breakfast.
"The ministers still have a great deal of influence," Ray said, maintaining that the church vote was ineffective last year only because it was split. "This is an off-year election, and it could be a close election, and it could be a close election. It's going to be important. Everyone vote counts."
Rodriguez, a Hispanic, said he is courting the church vote on historical grounds.
"The church has played such a part in the black and Hispanic community when we had nothing else. Politcally, the ministers have a lot power," he said. "If they endorse Hector Rodriguez, it lends a lot of impetus to what I'm all about."
These ministers are a conservative vanguard of the community. At times, politically, they are almost single-issue people of sorts. Housing is important to them. Much of the new subsidized housing in the city has been built by churches. And they are also just as likely, during their weekly discussions of the news, to raise questions about peace in the Middle East as they are to heartily applaud a speaker who remarks, "Racism is still the number one disease in America."
But when it comes to city elections, the major issues are the "moral" ones-gay rights, decriminalized marijuana and legalized gambling.
Where the church vote will go in this election, especially in the at-large council race, is uncertain. Both Moore, a Methodist minister long active in the city's church community, and Ray, a relative neophyte in city politics, whose strongest base is nnevertheless among clergymen, have key supporters among the preachers. Undoubtedly, the churchmen's preferences will be split.
Getting commitments early this week from some of the city churchmen-both inside and outside of the conference-was an elusive task for a reporter.
The Rev. James J. Roger of New Bethany Baptist Church said, at age 70, "I'm leaving this election to those young men."
Bishop Smallwood E. Williams of Bibleway Church said he had yet to make up his mind in the at-large race.
"I've got to think about it a little more and maybe pray about itd," Williams said.
Bishop Samuel Kelsey of the Temple Church of God in Christ said he has only recently been released from the hospital. "When it gets hot-if it gets hot," Kelsey said of the election, "I'll come out there and look it over."