Amid the paint-peeled auto shops and ramshackle row houses of Rhode Island Avenue NE looms Evangel Temple, a four-story fortress of faith with a computer room, an audio-visual control booth, a staff of 30 and one of the city's largest and fastest growing congregations -- all houses in royal-blue, wall-to-wall-carpeted surroundings as plush as the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Evangel Temple is the multimillion-dollar creation of John L. Meares, the 61-year-old founder and minister who started it all in 1955 with tent revivals on the grounds of what was to become the RFK Stadium parking lot. But while Meares built his enormous church on a familiar foundation -- the old-time evangical fervor of black Washington and his own high-technology religious acumen -- his tent-to-temple success story is unlike any other in a city full of well-heeled black Baptist and Pentecostal churches.
John Meares, the minister to about 4,000 black day laborers, domestics and federal workers, is white.
That fact has prompted a wide range of reactions in Washington's black community over the years. Meares has twice been faced with revolts: first in the early 1960s, when two women evangelists attempted to take the congregation away from him, and then in 1970, when a black activist group marched into the temple during a Sunday service and denounced churches that "steal from the poor."
But both those efforts ended swiftly as Meares' black believers stood by him, and today, as the Evangel Temple recruits new Christians and draws black members from other churches at a rate Meares claims to be 500 a year, some of the anger has turned to wonderment at what the white-haired, blue-eyed minister has accomplished.
Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, a respected and politically active black minister of Bible Way Church who has watched Meares operate for decades, said the success of the Evangel Temple can be attributed to good business sense and good preaching. "It's like a political campaign, and it works," said Williams of Meares' use of the latest techniques of the electronic church, including television, computers and mass mailings. "It's legitimate, and its success is reflected in the church's growth."
Other black ministers, including the Rev. John D. Bussey of the Bethesda Baptist Church in Northeast Washington, a member of the influental Council of 100 Ministers, say they are confounded by and concerned about Meares' evangical ways. Bussey said there was a "supernatural aspect" to the hold Evangel has on its congregation, and that he and many other pastors steer clear of the church because of that.
"Some of my own church members have left and joined Evangel Temple, and they take all those classes he gives. And when they were at my church, I couldn't get them to come to instruction of any kind," Bussey said. "Not only do they go to instruction, they give almost all their money. I've heard Meares preach and he's a good preacher. But he does not leave decisions to the people. He has a gimmick by which he does things. He says, 'The Lord told me to tell you,' and those people will do for him what they wouldn't do for anyone else."
Meares, a tall, stately man with a grandfatherly voice and folksy manner, readily acknowledges that he does not run a democratic church. Major decisions, he said, are made by the Temple's main governing body, eight salaried full-time ministers called elders, who include Meares, his wife Mary Lee, and sons Donnie and Virgil. Another elder is the Rev. John Petrucelli, who started Evangel Temple with Meares. All the elders are white except three, and those three received their religious training from the Meareses.
But the success of Evangel Temple -- the new building was constructed six years ago at a cost of $3.5 million -- is a tribute not just to Meares and his elders, but to hundreds of churchgoers who sacrificed and saved money for years, some of them even laying the roof and the bricks to trim construction costs. Their efforts made it possible for the new building to feature newly installed computers that will keep track of membership and expenses, an audio- and screen-projection booth, a 2,000-seat sanctuary, separate prayer chapel, ministerial lounge, kitchen and banquet room.
What prompted these middle-class and poor people to give so much of their time and money to Meares and Evangel Temple? Supernatural or not, the direct discussions with "the Lord" that Meares and his congregation say they experience explain quite a bit of it. The Pentecostal faith allows and encourages "speaking in tongues," the strange-sounding languages by which some believe God speaks to them, and "visions," in which God's message is thought to be revealed by a form of reverie and faith-healing.
Amelia Fulton, 50, an Evangel Temple member for 24 years, said she once had serious questions about a white man preaching before a black congregation, but no longer. "When I came here and found out he was white, I was so mad, purely because he was a white man over a black congregation when there were all these black ministers in town," said Fulton. "And you know, just when I was about to walk out of the church, a voice said, 'Amelia, sit down.' The voice said, 'If you're ever going to get to heaven, there's only one way -- if you can't get along down there, you won't get along up here."
"The first time I walked into that church, I thought everybody was going crazy," said Crispin Campbell, a local television producer and Temple regular. "Folks were standing up making all this noise, all these strange sounds, and I looked around thinking, 'What's the matter with these folks?' Now I'm doing it, too."
At a Sunday service recently, when the congregation had been told that 253 people had just paid off pledges of $1,000 each, reachng the first goal for a new gymnasium and multipurpose building they call "a building for God's family," men and women jumped, shouted, danced and clapped hands in jubilation.
"Ain't it gooood!" said Richard Ashby, a member of the church building committee, taking over the microphone. Before he spoke, several young couples, some of them crying, presumably with joy, had told the cngregation that saving the money wasn't easy, but that they believed that God had already provided for their basic needs even while they were worrying about how to get the money.
"Pastor Meares came to us with a vision," Ashby said. "He shared it with the elders and they saw it. He came to us and said, 'I want to share it with you.' So many of us have struggled and sacrificed, but God will always make a way. Yes, Lord! Hallelujah!"
Rev. Petrucelli joined the testimonials while Meares sat at the side of the podium and smiled and nooded in his three-piece white suit, his glacier-white hair parted in the middle. He said very little, but didn't have to. The church members were spurring each other on, giving one personal testimony after another.
"There's celebration in this church today, and I was thinking about the old building years ago, when we were wondering just where God would take us," Petrucelli said. "There is no way that man can understand the success of this body. The Lord has made this a success. We have not done this."
Then the lights began to dim on cue, and a huge white screen descended from the ceiling, showing a slide of an artist's rendering of the new building.The worship service again erupted with men and women wavings hands from side to side like fans at a college basketball tournament. They shouted, "Hallelujah, praise the Lord!" Closing their eyes and extending their arms upward, grandmothers with stocking rolled and knotted at the knee, bureaucrats and military officers in business suits and dresses chanted, "Love the Lord," in a melodic, mantra-like drone that was soothing yet brimming with emotion.
When Meares left an all-white congregation in Memphis and arrived in Washington a quarter-century ago, he found a city divided into white and black, with barriers and prejudices that Meares said have been slow to dissipate. In 1968, when riots in Washington ripped through the heart of the city after the assassination of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Meares' 30 percent white, 70 percent black congregation became all-black overnight. "The whites just stopped comng," Meares said. "My own church members called me after the riots and said, 'Pastor, don't come. If you do come, don't preach.' But I had been called to that church to reach."
The Meares have had to endure a great deal of cynicism as they have built a predominantly black church, and Evangel Temple members say they get a lot of criticism themselves from relatives, friends and coworkers when they say they go to a church pastored by a white man.
Fulton said once a woman who was discussing religion with her in a local hospital became furious when she told her she was an Evangel Temple member. "She had been smiling and happy, we were talking about the Lord," Fulton said. "When she asked me where I went to church and I said Evangel Temple, she looked like she wanted to hit me."
Ezekiel Wineglass, a Northeast Washington tractor-trailer driver for United Parcel Service, said he was skeptical of the outpouring of affection he saw at the church when he first attended with his wife Juanita, a church member. A near-tragic automobile accident on Rt. 202 in Largo, Md., in 1973 began to change his minmd. One of his first visitors at the hospital was Meares.
"I was driving the family to Maryland and this guy, who later I learned had been drinking, came towards us head-on," Wineglass said. "It was a horrible experience. My legs were broken in the accident, I was unable to work for a year, and my son Gilbert was in the hospital with a concussion for 51 days."
"The people at Evangel Temple showed us love, real love. They showed that they cared by coming by the house bringing us food and money when we didn't even ask for it," said Wineglass, who teaches a Sunday school class at Evangel Temple with his wife.
Barbara Lindsay, a civilian Army personnel specialist and former Bible Way church member, and her husband Seldon, a federal government accountant whose father was the founder of antioch Baptist Church here, said an overwhelming "spirit of love" convinced them to join Evangel Temple.
"It's not an issue of structure or one church being better than the other," Seldon Lindsay said. "But at Evangel Temple, I fet the feeling that they teach you more about day-to-day philosophy of how God relates to you at the job or work or at home. They tell you how the Bible wants you to live."
Said Juanita Wineglass: "We know that Rev. Meares is not perfect, but God can correct him if he's wrong." CAPTION: Picture 1, Founder John Meares heads staff of 30. By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, The church, which has about 4,000 members, is housed in a four-story building on Rhode Island Avenue NE that has a computer room and audio-visual control booth.; Picture 3, Founder John Meares and his wife Mary Lee, a minister and church elder, dance during a service. Two sons are also on church's main governing board.; Picture 4, The church's congregation includes day laborers, domestic workers and federal employes. More than 200 members recently paid off pledges of $1,000 each. Photos by Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post