Inside the offices of Pride, Inc., they watched the religious procession which had stopped outside their door at 16th and U Streets NW. and speculated on what it was all about.
"They're here," said a young woman, "because Christ died on the cross."
"Yes," a young man said bitterly, "and most of us gonna die right here on this corner."
On a rainy Good Friday, the Roman Catholic Church of St. Paul and Augustine took to the streets yesterday in a solemn march which likened Christ's death of many of their embattled neighbors in the 14th Street area.
For more than an hour they marched through the streets, singing and praying, undeterred by thunder and drenching rain.
"So much has happened in this neighborhood," the Rev. Raymond B. Kemp told the nearly 75 worshippers that gathered in the church at 15th and V Streets NW for the start of the procession.
"We believe Jesus lives and operates here. We who are his people need to redeem the space, the neighborhood in which we live," he said.
Led by young men from the congregation bearing crosses and insense burners and about a dozen choir members in creamy robes, the procession moved through the decaying 14th Street neighborhood, which Kemp calls "the rawest nerve in the city."
At 14 different locations they paused and took turns reading brief prayers prepared by Kemp for the occasion.
The reaction from the community was mixed.
Their second stop was at a battered apartment building, which the peeling gold leaf on the once proud fanlight proclaimed as "The Nanthcket."
The half-dozen men lolling on the chipped steps came to wary attention as the procession halted in front of them. They shushed the children and listened attentively to the liturgy that observed: "These apartments have so many recorded housing violations that they may well be worse than any stable," such as the one where Jesus was born.
The bystanders listened attentively as the church members finished their prayer "for renewed energy for the fight for decent, safe, affordable housing."
Only when they began singing at the next location did the tableau on the steps come to life. "I liked that" said one of the men loudly, and added: "I wish you plenty luck."
Not all the 14th Street habitues welcomed the church group so warmly. At 14th and W, a jittery young woman in a short tan raincoat and red plastic shoes observed the scene grumpily as rain came down in torrents. "When they're done with this I hope they march straight on out of here," she said. "Scared away my clients, babe, you know? If I could get what I need in church, do you think I'd be standing out here in this jive . . . ."
Roman Catholics, as well as some other Christians, traditionally mark Good Friday, with a symbolic remembrance of the agonies Christ suffered before and during his crucifixion. The observance, called the stations of the cross, is assisted by a series of 14 artistic renderings, fixed along the walls of most Catholic churches.
But yesterday, Kemp and his people found their stations of the cross not in the artfuly sculptured panels on the church's walls, but in the warped and battered lives of junkies, prostitutes, and poor.
Their contemporary stations of the cross included the spot across from Pamela's Grocery on 14th street where Police Officer Arthur Snyder was shot and killed; Jarvis Funeral Home where thousands from the city turned out for the wake of his alleged killer, the vacant lot at 14th and U where exactly 12 years ago the day, yesterday the Washington office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference told the community that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was dead, triggering intense rioting and looting in the 14th Street area and elsewhere in the city which caused 12 deaths and millions of dollars in property damage.
There was also a stop at a New Hampshire Avenue building where middle-class residents had been forced out because their building went condo; at the Congressional Wives club, where the liturgy spoke of "the groaning of Jesus in laws and appropriations which take from the poor," and divert resources for armaments; at the Roosevelt Hotel, where the prayers were for the elderly.
The marchers were accompanied throughout by D.C. police Officer Ernest Crumb, who diverted traffic for them. He was enthusiastic about the detail. "All churches ought to get involved in their neighborhoods," he said. "They ought to have a day when all the churches in D.C. do this."
Like the marchers, Crumb was drenched to the skin by the time the march was completed, but he did not mind. "It's worth standing out in the rain for something like this," he said.
Kemp is well known in the neighborhood and he frequently dropped out of the march for a moment to greet various of the street people. At one doorway on U street a middle-aged man on crutches first greeted him, then, oblivious to any ecclesiastical niceties, asked him "for bus fare." The priest fished under his rainsoaked robe for the change.
"That's one of our regulars," he explained later, "He comes to the rectory door for peanut butter sandwiches."
Kemp emphasized that the aim of the procession was "not to blame anyone" nor was it to win converts. "We are just recognizing that these conditions exist."
A young man, waiting at the bus stop at 14th and U, watched the religious procession with some skepticism.
"I dont's know how many people really understand the misery in a lot of black people's lives, especially up here," he said. Virtually all of the church members live in the area.
"I do a lot of drugs and I wish I didn't. I don't have a job and I wish I did. And I wish all these curious people would get tired of running up here to see what my pain looks like. I'll trade with any of them. Any time."