D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, under fire from local Jewish leaders for having invited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to visit the United States, took a respite from the controversy yesterday to break ground for his new church but fell ill and collapsed halfway through the ceremony.
A number of local and national black leaders, including Coreeta Scott King and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, were among the crowd of about 300 persons who witnessed Fauntroy's collapse at the 9th and S streets NW church site.
Fauntroy had been standing on the podium while a church member led the gathering in prayer when suddenly he began weaving and grabbed the microphone to steady himself. Moments later he sat heavily onto a chair at the back of the podium, and his head slumped into the lap of King's daughter, Yolanda.
Other dignitaries on the podium and members of the audience, including Fauntroy's wife Dlrothy, rushed to his aid. An ambulance was called and he was taken to George Washington University Hospital, where he was treated for exhaustion and dehydration and sent home to rest. At the outset of the ceremony, Fauntroy had told the audience he was suffering from fatigue and an unspecified illness he had contracted while traveling in the Middle East.
Before he fell ill, Fauntroy, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, basked in praise and celebration at the groundbreaking, and thanked God for sending sunshine for the event. The ceremony marked a homecoming not only for Fauntroy, who returned Saturday from his self-described peace-seeking trip to the Middle East with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but also for Fauntroy's church. The ground for the $1.1 million building was broken at the same spot the congregation left two years ago when their old church was condemned and torn down.
"This is the neighborhood, the place where I grew up," said Fauntroy, beaming to a standing crowd of about 300 people. "This is where God and His people showed me the way and where the folks served chicken and chitterling dinners so that I could go to (theological) school."
He added, to light applause, that "as we break ground now, God is going to break ground for us to get peace in the Middle East." His statement was the first of several statements by speakers in support of the SCLC's effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.
Fauntroy, chairman of the SCLC, has repeatedly aroused criticism here from Jewish leaders because of his participation in the SCLC meetings with Palestinians. American Jewish leaders could not be reached yesterday for comment on the invitation to Arafat to visit the United States.
The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the SCLC, said Arafat was asked to speak at the first of 10 community "educational forums" on the Middle East that the group is planning.
A State Department spokesman said last night, however, that Arafat would have to apply for a visa and that the Department has denied a majority of applications made by PLO members. But each application is evaluated on a case-by-case basis," spokesman David Passage said. "We will just have to wait and see when the case comes up."
One Jewish leader reached on Saturday, Rabbi Joshua Haberman of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, said he believed that Fauntroy had gone too far in inviting Arafat to speak here.
A spokesman for Fauntroy said the delegate recently placed an advertisement in the Jewish Week newspaper, indicating his support of Zionism and offering his "deepest and warmest" regards to Jews during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday, which began as sunset Friday.
"I am especially pleased to join you in a prayer for peace and goodwill based on mutual respect and co-operation with Jewish people of the world," the ad said.
Yesterday's ceremony was a church celebration, with individual church members, including Fauntroy, calling the occurrence "my day."
As the gold-and-white-suited Elks Band of Washington high-stepped and played the song "This is my country," youthful members of their drill team marched in precision.
Children from the neighborhood giggled and chased one another around clusters of people while parents in Sunday finery -- some of them wearing elaborately decorated hats and mink stoles -- stood in the sunshine during the speeches.
Besides King and Young, yesterday's guests included members of the city's black clergy, former Juvenile Court Judge Marjorie Lawson, and five city Council members -- Chairman Arrington Dixon, David Clark (D-One), Betty Ann Kane (D-at-large), Jerry Moore (R-at-large) and Nadine Winter (D-Six).
"Did you see her, did you see Coretta Scott King?" said one woman from the neighborhood wearing a flowered pants suit and house slippers.
"Now, aren't you glad I told you to come?" she said to a young man standing next to her.