The room is festooned with countless crepe paper streamers in all the colors of a rainbow. Giant tinfoil stars edged in red or gold rope tinsel dangle above the hundreds of guests in frilly dresses, evening gowns, three-piece suits and even tuxedos.
Two Dixie-style brass bands have been playing their hearts out since the first arrivals began pouring in at dusk.
It is 11:15 p.m. and the moment is at hand; a man rushes through the double doors twirling a white handkerchief over his head signaling the arrival of the guest of honor. Amid fanfare worthy of a king, the now frantic crowd jockeys for a clear view. Some putt wrinkled dollar bills from their pockets and disburse them to friends, and dozens of honor attendants rush to their positions along the center aisle.
"Everybody wave their hand high," a man yells above the din of trombones and cries from the audience. "He's coming in! C'mon, get 'em up there. Yes, yes, yes!"
With the salute of a group of black-suited, white-gloved guards, he steps through the church's double doors, hands his panama hat to an attendant, grins at his screaming waving followers and waves back rhythmically.
Bishop Walter McCollough, known affectionately as "Sweet Daddy McCollough" or just "Daddy" to his followers, has arrived.
As he leads his entourage down the center aisle of the Baltimore church, people hand him dollar bills, which he takes and adds to the mounting stack in the hands of a woman nearby. Another woman fans him in sweeping motions as he, dressed in gray suit and electric blue print tie and handkerchief, leisurely shakes the outstretched hands of some making "love offerings."
At the front of the church he waves once more to the adoring crowd and takes his place on the "holy mountain" -- seated on a swiveling thronelike chair. The air is stifling and two "mountain maids" dressed in pink continue to fan him and his wife, Madam McCollough.
For the next three hours, he watches his flock bounce to Gospel music performed by groups from around the East Coast. For the last hour and a half there is a concurrent grand finale -- several hundred members of the Baltimore church performing a pageant entitled "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Although all of Bishop McCollough's comings and going are surrounded with pomp, those ceremonies Sunday night were special for his United House of Prayer for All People Church on the Rock of the Apostolic Faith because they marked the close of the church's annual convocation in Baltimore and the start of its District of Columbia convocation.
Members of the House of Prayer, which is based in the District of Columbia, consider convocation season the "holiest time of the year." The series of 14 annual convocations, most of which fall between July and October, are a time of mass baptisms, building dedications, dazzling musical performances and picnics held in cities from Los Angeles to New York where the church has put down roots. Convocations also mark the annual auditing of each church's books.
This year, the church's D.C. convocation, is expected to have special meaning because McCollough will dedicate the expansion of the church's national headquarters at 601 M St. NW at noon tomorrow. The expansion, which church officials said cost $4 million and already has been paid for in cash, houses an atrium, church library, baptismal pool, chapel, banquet rooms and offices. It is referred to in church literature as "God's Paradise."
The structure is connected to the church's main temple located in the heart of Shaw, also known to members as "God's White House."
The convocation finale Sunday is scheduled to feature the baptism of 10,000 faithful in the expansive baptismal pool in the new church wing, beginning at 11 a.m., according to church spokesmen.
Some church members see tomorrow's dedication as a new beginning for the church, founded in a storefront in 1926 by the Bishop Charles M. (Sweet Daddy) Grace. Daddy Grace -- noted for his long hair and fingernails, an abundance of gold jewelry and bright-colored cutaways -- set the church on its path of phenomenal growth from a single church in Charlotte, N.C., to its current status of a reported 350 congregations and multimillion-dollar holdings.
As with so many things concerning the church, because officials are generally unwilling to talk to the press and there are no public records, it is virtually impossible to verify church statements independently. One knowledgeable source, for example, estimated that there are 160 to 200, not 350 congregations.
Membership figures may also fall into that same category. Church statements put total membership in excess of 5 million, but there are indications that figure is too high. For example, the combined membership of the churches in the Washington-Baltimore region is put at 20,000 by church officials. But the Washington segment of the region, with sever churches as opposed to the two listed for Baltimore, has a maximum membership of 4,000, according to calculations based on an individual church memberships.
There is not doubt, however, that the church, which Bishop McCollough took over in 1960 after Daddy Grace's death, has had a noticeable impact in Washington in particular. The church here has built low-rent housing and a retirement home and serves low-costs meals at its cafeteria, for example.
The bishop has amassed a reputation for leadership that makes him the center of courting by local politicians. As D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy said recently, "When Bishop McCollough speaks, I and other politicians listen."
"I remember a time when people used to laugh at us. They called us Daddy Grace's fools" said Elder Daniel Raycrow, a D.C. resident and pastor of the House of Prayer church in Salisbury, Md. "Now they can look at what we own and what we've accomplished with our nickels and dimes and they don't laugh anymore."
The church plays a central role in the lives of its members, who tend to be black and from middle-class and lower middle-class backgrounds.
"It covers every aspect of my life," said Raycrow's daughter, Debbie, 23, who works for the federal government. "There's something to do all year round." Raycrow uses her sewing talent to make choir robes and is a member of the choir and the Sunday school committee. "It's the main thing my family has in common. I put my church before my family," she said.
"The emotionalism is the thing for me," said Tom Tyler, 37, of Silver Spring, who joined the church six years ago. "And the bands, the basic instinct of African heritage are important, too," said Tyler, a social worker with the D.C. government.
"I heard about the church since I was little but I never saw him [Bishop McCollough] speak in college and something just drew me to it," said Marxus Brown, who joined while in college in 1968. "At first you just stand there in awe."
"It's like a metamorphosis," said Brown, a nursing supervisor at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Brown, who had trouble identifying what specifically attracted him to the church, said, "That's the mystery of the House of Prayer. I guess that's why it's so successful; it's built on faith. Ever since I joined, I have moved up in my career and emotionally."
Others said that it is the strong sense of family belonging that keeps them at the church. "No matter where you travel, you'll find one of our churches and you'll feel warm and accepted," said one woman.
Sabrina Jackson, 20, of Burton, Va., said she would not have been able to attend college without scholarship money from the church. Each year since she entered Old Dominion University to study special education, she said, she has received $800 toward her tuition from the church. The church distributes $70,000 a year in scholarships to members and some nonmembers, according to Elder C. L. McCollough, the bishop's son.
One local House of Prayer pastor who requested anonymity said that when he was without a job for several months and fell behind in his rent, "I called him [McCollough] and before I got done explaining he said, 'How much do you need and where do I wire it?"
McCollough sent him $600, didn't ask for repayment and never mentioned the money again, according to the pastor.
Houses of Prayer are beehives of activity every day of the week. There are services every night, and dozens of various choir and band rehearsals weekly, not to mention committee and club meetings. Every member is encouraged to serve on at least one committee, according to Elder McCollough, who also serves as pastor of a House of Prayer in Anacostia.
United House of Prayer members are expected to donate one-tenth of their salaries to the church, refrain from smoking and drinking, and marry within the church, according to Elder McCollough. They are also encouraged to refrain from watching television, said Elder McCollough, "because it fills your mind with evil thoughts."
Church officials are required to have immaculate bookkeeping practices or lose their jobs and must get permission from "the Supreme" (McCollough) before spending more than $500 for nonemergency items, according to a thick rule book on church finances called "Are You Aware." The book says that church secretaries who do not turn in their pastors for infractions of this rule will be fired.
While individual churches are scrutinized down to the penny, the bishop himself makes no financial reports to the congregations on general church income, property or membership.
"Why should he?" asked Raycrow. "We know everything he's doing is for our good. He does nothing for himself. He doesn't think of himself. Everything he does is for us and for the House of Prayer."
Many Washingtonians know of the church through its annual parades and mass baptisms by fire hose at convocation time. McCollough himself remains somewhat mysterious to most church members. Even church pastors say they know little about his past or his personal life. He refuses to talk to reporters.
He travels by chauffeured limousine and often is surrounded by uniformed McCollough guards, "maids" and plainclothes body guards.
Parents say they can coax their children into behaving just by threatening to "Tell Daddy." They also report that McCollough has been known to "speak to" members who stray from the moral codes recommended by the church.
His picture and name are everywhere at his churches. His name appears on a line of products such as soap, lotions, olive oil, coffe, and other household items, which the church usually makes available at below-retail prices.
He has overseen the construction or renovation of 75 churches across the country and built a seminary in Richmond for the education of church elders, and low-income housing in Norfolk, Newport News and Savannah, in addition to the apartments here, according to Raycrow. The church also owns a fleet of buses, called McCollough luxury liners, to take bands, choirs and members to neighboring churches.
"He is an astute businessman," said Raycrow. "Every time I'm around him I learn. He never lets anything get stagnant. He uses his men in the best capacity. He knows his men. Some are builders, so he puts them at a church until it's built up and then puts in someone who knows how to maintain a church."