Prayer, faith, fellowship and soaring song were enlisted yesterday in Washington's war against what officials call a heroin epidemic and a drug-related crime spree. As if to underscore the point, the city announced that heroin overdose deaths this year have set a record -- 86 -- with three months of the long year still to go.
The record figure, released by D. C. Medical Examiner James Luke, surpasses the previous record of 82, set in 1971; and yesterday it gave sad emphasis to a prayer service for the victims of heroin and its crimes held by the Council of Churches of Greater Washington.
The service was at Shiloh Baptist Church, which occupies a corner of Ninth and O streets NW in the heart of the city's drug-ridden Shaw neighborhood. Three blocks away, at 11th and P, languid men and women hawked their wares -- advertising the heroin substitute known as "Bam" and $10 bags of marijuana that they swore was The True Gold.
But neither the extent of the problem nor the fact that a larger crowd was expected dampened the resolve of the hundred or so persons who came to Shiloh at noon to pray.
"We've got to go back to God, that's all," said Nannie T. Singleton, a sixty-ish Northeast Washington woman with immaculate silver hair. "People have gotten away from God. That's why all this is happening."
The Rev. Ernest R. Gibson, pastor of First Rising Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Shaw and head of the Council of Churches, led many of the other speakers in calling for help from the federal government in getting the drugs off Washington's streets.
"Since war was declared on the fruit fly to save oranges and grapes," Gibson said, "we feel that the president should declare war on illegal drugs, to save our sons and daughters."
Mayor Marion Barry drew applause when he preached, singsong hellfire Baptist-style, about the need for citizens to unite in the crusade. "Rich or poor, black or white, PhD or no-D, this is our problem," Barry said. He said addicts should be helped so that "the demons of death that hold them can be cast free."
To emphasize that the problem spans the metropolitan area -- in recent crackdowns on street drug sales, many of the customers arrested have been suburban whites -- Montgomery County Executive Charles Gilchrist spoke at the service and Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan sent a representative. Scriptures were read from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran.
The biggest audience response was for Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr., who has launched a widely publicized drive against the drive-up drug markets that have flourished on some streets.
"I will more vigorously than ever continue my efforts to lock up every drug distributor, every drug dealer, every junkie who operates in the District of Columbia," Turner said.
The worshipers heard an explanation of the federal government's responsibility for the drug problem from D. C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, listened to music from soprano Patricia Barnes, and witnessed the lighting of three candles: One for those who have been killed in drug-related incidents, one for the 86 who have died of drug overdoses and one in hope for those who now suffer from drug addiction.
The candles flickered softly in front of the altar.
Wallace Monroe, a 74-year-old retired window cleaner, said after the service that drug sellers at East Capitol Dwellings in far Northeast, across the street from his apartment in the Capitol View Plaza, keep him up at night making noise. They threaten others who live in his senior citizens' complex, he said.
"They don't put no pressure on those guys when the catch them," said Monroe. "They need to lock 'em all up."
"The police just got to keep on fighting it," said Rachel Cauley, who lives on Chicago Street in Anacostia, near the drug-selling junction of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Talbert Street SE. "They pick up the drug sellers on my street, you know. Yes. They always congregate, but I don't know what else for the police to do."
Sister Tyree, a member of the Missionary Circle of Meridian Hill Baptist Church on 16th Street NW, offered another solution. "They need more missionaries, to go out where they are selling the drugs," she said. "I do that myself, when I'm able. We just got to go to them, talk to them, help them find God."