It was a night for the worshipers at Metropolitan Baptist Church to don something finer than their Sunday finest: the men in black tie white tie, powder-blue tuxedos, elegant white evening jackets; the women in silks and satins, brocaded gowns, sequined bodices and accordion-pleated skirts that fell perfectly to the kind of shoes made for sitting.
The church, an institution in Washington's black community for 117 years, was throwing itself a dinner to kick off a construction drive for a new church building. With Easter just a few days away, the love and pride were palpable inside the gleaming ballroom at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. This was Metropolitan's night to step out, to shine.
But the celebration was alloyed by a tinge of sadness that would linger past the Easter season, one of the most important times of year for the black church -- lending a hint of dark, brooding, helpless feelings stemming from the bad-news tenor of the times. The mood changed as soon as the guest speaker uttered six words:
"I bring you greetings from Atlanta," said Maynard Jackson, mayor of the city in which 23 young blacks have been murdered with no one knowing why, and worst of all, with no one knowing when the killing will end.
Atlanta now carries a sad and weighty set of connotations for blacks in this country, connotations radically different from those of years past. Atlanta used to mean the biggest concentration of black millionaires in the nation, respected black colleges like Morehouse and Spelman, relative racial harmony in a booming metropolis that was rapidly becoming, in Jackson's words, "the buckle of the Sun Belt."
Now, when blacks think of Atlanta they think of dead children.
"We are a great city and a courageous people, but we're troubled right now," said Jackson, the city's first black mayor and the son, grandson and great-grandson of Baptist ministers. "Our children, and therefore your children, are under attack. It's almost like things were too good, and now there is trouble in the Garden of Eden."
Curtis Cox, a 46-year-old retired federal worker born in Spartanburg, S.C., now living in Washington, said the joy of his church's expansion ans the Easter season were diminished somehow by what has been happening in Atlanta.
"Everybody in the church is upset about it," said Cox, resplendent in a dinner jacket and ruffled pink shirt, carrying his short frame with the proud, earnest demeanor of a church usher. "We've been having prayer for the children. We figure this is something best handled with prayer."
Cox said the church was considering sending some money to help fund the investigation of the Atlanta murders, as other black churches around the country have done. So much money has come in, in fact, that Atlanta officials hope to use the surplus to fund expanded summer jobs and recreational programs for the city's youth.
Jackson touched only briefly on the killings in Atlanta, but the rest of his address spoke to the undercurrents that run beneath perceptions many blacks holds of the murders. The gains made by blacks in recent years seem to be under attack, much like the gains blacks made during Reconstruction were snatched away by Jim Crow laws. Atlanta seems to symbolize the end of something and the beginning of something else.
"Once again we find ourselves thinking we're free, and we're not," Jackson said. "We've been trying to build from the top down, and you can't do it that way."
Jackson meant that while a visible and conspicously affluent black middle class tools around in BMWs and Mercedes coupes, more blacks are poor than ever before and the gap between blacks and whites has been steadily increasing.
The black church has been the major "bottom-up" vehicle for black progress, Jackson said. "I think God for the around-the-clock church. This church understands the necessity of being involved with politics. I don't see how one can say they truly care about the children and not go to vote."
When District of Columbia residents first got to vote for president in 1964, those who lived near 12th and R streets NW did so at Metropolitan Baptist Church, where a polling placed had been set up.
Easter, one of Christendom's holiest days, is Sunday, but this year it seems to be riding in on a tide of bad times. And while the members of Metropolitan Baptist Church listened as Maynard Jackson spoke sadly of his city, they focused on the Biblical quotation which served as a backdrop to the dais, one that referred to much more than a new $2 million building: ". . . a time to break down, and a time to build up . . ."