The thundering, rich voice of the Rev. L.B. Jones filled the cavernous, three-story-high sanctuary of Springfield Baptist Church with magic.
For nearly 60 passionate minutes, during Easter services yesterday, the voice bounced off the 10 giant chandeliers with their huge light bulbs and reverberated over the loudspeakers and the closed-circuit television that carried the message to the balcony and the basement below--to an overflow crowd of about 2,000 that crammed the modern brown brick building at Sixth and P streets NW in Shaw.
The voice made people shout and sing. It made a few scream and cry. It brought Avis Brown, 25, stomping to her feet, and it soon had her dancing in a circle. It made an older lady in a brown fur coat swoon and fall into the arms of the men nearby. It brought James Lewis, 78, thumping to his feet, shouting, "Thank you, Jesus, Thank you, Master," even though he he had just been released from the hospital and carried a portable oxygen supply with a tube leading into his nose.
It was Easter Sunday at Springfield Baptist, a vibrant and growing inner-city church whose membership continues to swell, even as most of its congregants, including young government workers and professionals with families, have moved away to the Maryland suburbs. They have returned faithfully to worship.
Easter is at once special and not-so-special at Springfield Baptist. It is special because of the unique and timeless message of the holiday, with all its trappings. The message of Resurrection inevitably moves a few more people to join the church than usual, the pastor said--and yesterday, after he had preached sometimes in song and sometimes in shout, about a dozen people did march down the blue-carpeted center aisle to become members.
On a more mundane level, it is also special because of the laying on of extra ham, sausage, eggs, and hash-browns for the morning breakfast that fed about 150 after 8 a.m. prayer. And of course, Easter would not be Easter at Springfield Baptist without the traditional Easter bonnets, Jones said.
Scores of bright feathered, flowered, and even cherry-topped hats were in evidence. Straw hats, velvet hats, gold pillbox hats, satiny turbans were perched on well-coiffed heads. Jones gently chided some of them from the pulpit: "You know, if you are wearing your Easter bonnet, you can still say 'Amen' and 'Praise the Lord.' It will not disturb your hat."
Those trappings aside, though, Easter is hardly different from most Sundays to many congregants. "It's Easter here every Sunday, not just once a year," said John Blalock, a gray-haired preacher who assists Jones.
"You may not believe it, but we are jammed like this every Sunday, not just Easter," said Evelyn Tobin, 36, who has been church secretary nearly half her life. "They stand along the walls because they can't find seats most Sundays. But for Easter, you won't even be able to breathe in there, it gets so crowded."
Indeed, Springfield Baptist, which was founded in 1939 by a woman named Sister Josie Cheeter, has already outgrown two church buildings in 43 years and is currently in its third expansion.
The late Sister Cheeter organized services in her now-demolished home at 777 M St. NW until the church moved into a room over a shoe store on nearby Seventh Street. Then the growing congregation assumed a then-astronomical $38,000 mortgage (which it paid off in less than four years with donations), and took over a handsome gray-stone church at Sixth and P streets, the former site of a predominantly white Presbyterian church that relocated beyond the Beltway in 1941.
But Springfield Baptist outgrew that site too, and in 1976 built itself a $1 million building right next door to the old one. Already, the church is outgrowing the new structure, where its eight Sunday school classes are crammed into hallways and utility rooms. Last month, Springfield paid $100,000 to buy the property next door for still another expansion.
Louis B. Jones, 52, a small man from Arkansas with a giant voice, is credited by most of his flock for the steady growth of Springfield Baptist during his 11-year stewardship. In that time, the church has undertaken some $1.5 million in new construction and renovation and now claims about 4,000 members.
Jones appears to be both friend and father to this growing church community. As the pastor readied himself between the 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. services yesterday, he traded jokes with some of the deacons, took gentle ribbing from some teen-agers who kidded him about his shiny new shoes, dispensed some advice about real estate to an up-and-coming entrepreneur and gabbed a bit about D.C. politics.
Then he double-checked on arrangements for the Easter egg hunt, for the Easter breakfast and the Easter youth play, and for the taping of his Easter sermon that would be heard during his regular Sunday night show on radio station WYCB.
But once he donned his flowing robes over his 5-foot-6-inch, 149-pound frame and climbed to the broad white pulpit, he became, as he called it, "an instrument of the Lord." It is his preaching, say his congregants, that is largely responsible for the church's growth.
"I know these people in this area," said Blalock, "If you don't put out the spirit, they won't come in these doors. Pastor Jones, he brings them in."
Jones responds to such statements with modesty. "I guess the Lord just uses us well . . . The Lord says He draws those that He desires. Let's give Him the credit."
Ask a church member about Springfield, and chances are they will talk about Jones or they will describe the strong sense of family that pervades the church. "When you become part of a family like this, you stick together through good and bad . . . It's something you never lose," said Avis Brown, a Treasury employe whose church job is to make community announcements before services.
Brown met her fiance, William Warley, 29, several years ago at the "Mr. and Miss Springfield Contest," the annual church gala at which up to $30,000 in scholarships are awarded to the most promising young members of the congregation. "I didn't win the scholarship, but I won something else," said Brown, referring to Warley, who is the drummer for three of Springfield's nine church choirs.
"Once you got something like this, you never leave it," said Beatrice Stringfellow, 59, a Navy program analyst who has belonged to Springfield for more than 40 years and now directs its youth programs.
From the pulpit, Jones preached to his family and especially its youth: "You don't need to smoke no cigarette. You don't need to smoke no dope. You don't need to drink no liquor. You don't need to take nothing to put you to sleep." His voice rose. "Jesus can give you the peace you need. I sleep all night, 'cause I got a good dose of Jesus. I got a good dose of Jesus. God Almighty, He's my sleeping pill."
When he was finished preaching, Jones pulled off his glasses, mopped his brow and raised his robed arms: "The Lord is here with us today," he said, "Am I right about it?"