Shiloh does not shout. It is not frenzied. Rather it overwhelms, startles and surprises. With sermons rooted in contemporary politics. With flash, vibrance and vitality in the songs it sings. The World and the music are timed for maximum effect.
Washingtonians enshrined Sunday at Shiloh long ago. Hubbub every Sunday. Packed every Sunday. People all over the place Sunday. Packed every Sunday. People Overcrowded bus lines. They came -- members, nonmembers, members of other churches -- to see the Shiloh Sunday Production. Its corner at 9th and P streets NW takes on the look of V-J Day. Cameras. Tape records.
If the crowds can't get in the 800-seat main auditorium, they go downstairs and watch on a 4-by-5 foot closed-circuit TV screen. Frozen out there, they go back upstairs and line the sides of the main auditorium. If all else fails, they stand outside in the halls. More than 1,000 people every Sunday.
Shiloh's devotional services involve, at the least, 200 people every week. Two or three choirs perform at all times. Aided and abetted by the sound of an $85,000 Casavant organ, the church, on any given Sunday, supplies full-steam, straight-ahead, don't-look-back music that uplifts, transports.
During the service, flashbulbs are used like commas, periods, exclaminatin points. Such is the norm.
The word has spread. This Sunday, Shiloh Baptist Church will offer Ester Service for the nation when CBS (WDVM-TV, Channel 9) broadcasts its morning services at 10:30 a.m. CBS selected "historic" Shiloh "not only for its music, but for its impressive record of social work in the Washington community."
Congregants are taking the telecast, like everything else about their extraordinary church, in stride. "I hope CBS will hold up that collection plate a little," confided one church member, referring to the famous Shiloh Collection Plate, which has been known to make four passes during one service to support the church's 96 educational, fellowship and service organizations.
Founded by fugitive slaves, the 118-year-old chruch, with 13 telephone listings in the D.C. white pages, has gained the reputation of being one of the most activist churches in the country.
According to the Rev. Henry C. Regory III, senior pastor at Shiloh: "We promote activities that are beneficial to the interests of those without work, food shelter or hope. We see ourselves as interpreters of what the issues are; an advocate for people who don't have a voice."
Shiloh has, n the past, provided a weekly forum and meeting place for Jesse Jackson and the organizers of his Operation PUSH program and allowed Sen. Edward Kennedy a platform for policy statements during his recent bid for the presidency.
One its own, of and by itself, it reputations rests. Only five pasters have helmed Shiloh since 1863 -- all concerned with the reality of providing help for the disenfranchised.
In its chronology of innovations, Shiloh seems to have outpaced societal modes and conduct -- and time itself -- in its recognition of sorely needed outreach programs. Former slaves and Union soldiers were taught reading and writing in its Sunday school in the 1860s; "alley ministries" were created in 1911 to fight substandard and living conditions; a day nursery was organized in 1914, and a regular Sunday service for the hearing-impaired was begun in 1917.
John Milton Waldron, who pastored Shiloh from 1907 to 1929, was a fiery, controversial member of W.E.B. DuBois Niagara Movement and the first president of the Washington branch of the NAACP. He placed jobs, housing and education as his top priorities; battling constantly with the national NAACP over what her perceived to be their slowness in addressing crises.
During his tenure, Shiloh was burned out. Shortly after buying their present building in 1924, a member of the white Methodist church that previously had occupied the property began torching the building to keep an organ he had dedicated to his church "out of black hands." The arsonist successfully bribed a black watchman hired to prevent recurrences to do the job that closed down the church. The 800-seat main auditorium and the organ were destroyed -- Waldron conducted services for a year at the Howard Theatre until repairs were made.
In 1948, the newly organized United Cafeteria Employes Union 471, 1,500 strong, walked out of government cafeterias to gain recognition as a bargaining agent for relatively low-paid cafeteria workers. The union met a Shiloh every day for strategy sessions until it was finally recognized by the contractors who managed the cafeterias.
The '60s brought the successful, and still operational, Church Religious and Educational Activities Department (CREAD), an ambitious tutorial program funded by the Shiloh membership and headed by Elizabeth Pollard, a former Kentucky high school principal.
"They helped my daughters do everything every day after school," Lula Spann, a grateful mother, remembered. "And if they weren't there, Rev. Austin (Ronald Austin, one of Shiloh's three associate pastors) would come searching for them."
Tracey is now a freshman at Howard; Tippy a sophmore at the University of Maryland; and Terry an English literature graduate of Catholic University en route to graduate school.
"I'm tellin' ya'," said Spann, "you can never say enough about Shiloh."
Smiling, obviously pleased, Pollard added: "We've helped many like the Spann sisters. These kids come back to us, become members and carry on the work."
For the past 15 years, youth memberships have outstripped adult memberships by a wide margin, Gregory noted. Total church membership is 4,600 -- making Shiloh one of the largest in the city.
In addition to operating outreach programs for the young, Shiloh sponsors senior citizens programs, and through its Human Service Center, attempts to find jobs, housing and shelter for anyone in need -- church member or not. The church also owns several units of low-income housing in the Shaw area that it rents at a loss yet refuses to sell -- "Why?" repeats Associate Paster Kenneth E. Burke Jr. at the question. "Where would the people go?"
Shiloh supplies volunteer workers for area medical clinics, scouting programs and the Lorton Reformatory educational and counseling project. With an even longer reach, it maintains and staffs the Shiloh Mission in Nigeria.
And now. For 1982 and beyond. Shiloh has already stared to build its three-story Family Life Center adjacent to the church; a project conceived by Rev. Gregory to encourage healthier family relationships among the urban black population.
Gregory believes there is a need for more facilities where the entire black family, or "roommates," or "households" can congregate for "wholesomeness and education," and, he added: "Inner-city black people have not had the resources available to cope with stress that the suburban areas have with their health spas and country clubs. Because of the lack of physical fitness programs and bad health habits, most black men don't live long enough to collect Social Security."
So a sauna, four bowling alleys, daily lectures on food, nutrition and physical fitness, reacquetball courts, a roller-skating rink, jacuzzis, exercise classes, family game rooms, puppet shows, banquet halls for family and group get-togethers, a gymnasium, a storytelling room for the children, an after-school tutorial program, and trampoline, a roof garden, a Chapel of Hope for meditatins and marriages, rooms for club meetings and a gargage are in the making.
The choirs will march Easter Sunday. Signaled by the swelling, other-worldly sound of the Cassavant, the CBS telecast will begin with the up-the-aisle procession of the 92-member Shiloh Senior Choir -- comporting themselves in the patented Shiloh way. Swaying as they walk, not strutting. Singing, not shouting.
"We're not a shouting church; but we react in a warm, responsive way," Gregory explains. "We try to aim for the majestic."
The snap and precision of Shiloh are being honed in rehearsal with a finger-snapping, hand-clapping Charles Fleming rallying his senior choir with shouts of, "Come on, ladies, move faster . . . faster." When the jaunty swaying is just right, when the steps are taken in broken yet smooth rhythms of twos and threes, causing the black-and-white choir robes to lick ankles in unison, when the heads are thrown back, when the organist pulls out all the stops to complement, reinforce and bathe the singers in a sound that comes from all directions. When all this happens, all at once, chills needle the body. Omniscience is given goose-pimply definition. Majesty.
Other highlights of the broadcast will be the specialty number by the children's choir, tots really, who perform with innocent beauty and cheek-pinching charm, and an unusual, touching performance by the hearing-impaired choir known as the Silent Mission. While this five-member group sings "The Lord's Prayer" in sign language, the Senior Choir will softly sing the translation.
Music will not dominate the program, although it will seem to with five choirs and that mighty, mighty organ. Twenty minutes of the hourlong broadcast have been set aside for Rev. Gregory's message.
It is written. And titled: "Where Broken Lines Unite." Asked to summarize his text, Gregory responded in the Shiloh style: "I will deal with the needs of people in this time when the lines of communication have broken down. I'll be talking about resurrection. Resurrection of Christ. Resurrection of Man. Resurrection of social action programs."
The prospect of a nationwide TV hookup has not unsettled the church. People are "pleased" and "feel good about," but no one is ecstatic. The mood is one of taking it in stride. Priorities have been sorted out. Last month, Shiloh held a special prayer and vigil service for the murdered and missing children in Atlanta. Red and green ribbons of hope and sympathy are everywhere at Shiloh.
A whippoorwill sang a brief snatch of song in the pre-dawn mist. Several cabin doors on the Virginia plantation yawned open soundlessly. Elizabeth and Clement Morgan were among the crouched figures clutching old bandannas knotted and bundled with ashcake and salt herring -- skittering on cats' feet toward the woods and the river. To follow the Potomac from Fredericksburg, through Stafford and Brooke and Falmouth, to "Freedomland."
They traveled only at night, without luxury of fire, through brackish swamps, thick underbrush, briars, mud and cold. The Morgans mastered stillness down to the muffling of a heartbeat to baffle the slave patrols. Ragged, dirty, hungry, half-dead, they reached Georgetown and were absorbed into a black network of church organizations and private families who had made the same journey. The Morgans were given food, clothing, shelter. Contacts made, Clement found a job quickly.
One year later, in 1863, he, his wife, and 18 other men and women -- all runaway slaves from Fredericksburg -- founded and organized a church. They called it Shiloh.