The Rev. Clarence Long was in the midst of a Sunday morning radio broadcast sermon from the Greater Scripture Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ a few weeks ago when he received a telephone call from a 6-year-old girl who said she and her family were hungry.
"I sent my deacons out looking for that girl and what they found surprised me," Long said in an interview yesterday.
His deacons found the girl and her family living in a Southeast Washington apartment. They were going to be evicted within 24 hours, Long said. The father was unemployed, the mother ill. The girl wanted something to eat.
The church was able to assist the family, but the search had turned up more.
The deacons "found children sleeping in dresser drawers because they have no bed, and people, whose water has been cut off, trying to drink from leaky pipes," Long said. "There are a lot of hungry people out there and we felt as Christians we must at least try to feed some of them."
So with the help of volunteers from around the city, Long's congregation prepared and offered a free lunch for the masses yesterday, with down-home style meals, including baked, fried and barbecued chicken, potato salad, sweet potatoes, cornbread and watermelon, served on scores of tables in front of the church, located at Ninth and O streets NW.
Before the day had ended, an estimated 3,000 persons had been served, according to church officials.
The effort spilled out into the neighborhood, with residents pouring from their homes either to bring food or get some to eat. With the help of city police, who closed off the street in front of the church, and the fire department, which hosed the street down before the food was served, the food feast was a success.
"Mr. Preacher, this is the best thing that have happen to me in a long time," said one grateful man when Long asked him how he was feeling. "I'm so hungry I could eat your shoe."
"Well, there are many people who know something about being hungry, sir," Long told the man. "You just go eat all you want."
In this modern day version of the Bible story in which Jesus fed the multitudes with a few fishes and loaves, the nutrition yesterday was brought forth by a faithful congregation of women, dressed in white and referring to each other as "sister," who labored in a small, hot church kitchen for over 48 hours.
"We weren't always sure if there would be enough food, but now the iceboxes are full," said Clara Somers, to a symphony of cutting, slicing, beating and mashing that continued in the church basement even after serving time.
"We only use one recipe for everything -- 'country,' " explained Ethel Lee, kitchen boss and Long's mother-in-law. "If the devil comes in and brings stress on us, we just stop and pray."
Then there were the donors, at first just a trickle of anonymous persons who had heard about the church efforts during a broadcast on radio station WYCB.
"I've been hungry one time and I know what it's like," Corine Norris told Long when she handed him a bag of groceries yesterday. "I wouldn't feel right eating and knowing what I know." The woman asked for a favor in return as she limped away. "Pray for me, please," she asked Long. "This arthritis is acting up again."
By yesterday,, two big names had checked in with substantial donations: Giant Food Inc. and B. F. Saul and Co. of Chevy Chase.
As people began gathering in front of the church yesterday afternoon, Long picked up a microphone and called for anyone who was hungry to come forward. "Don't be ashamed," he said. "Pride can't fill your stomach."
Among them were persons who clearly had not eaten properly in weeks. One man, his eyes yellowed and watery, his peacoat stained and his knit hat grubby, cautiously adjusted himself to the table. Slowly, he worked his fork into a piece of chicken, then, turning his head parallel to his plate, eased the food into his mouth.
"When the last time you had something like this?" he asked the man next to him, who was his twin in appearance.
"Last night," the other man said, gasping for air between ravenous attacks on his plate. "I just came to hear the gospel."
"Yeah, me too," said the man with yellowed eyes.
From loudspeakers set up on the church steps came gospel music sung by the group, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, reverberating throughout the neighborhood known as Shaw, for years a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes.
"I guess 75 percent of these people are sinners," said Long, looking out over the meandering queue. "But that doesn't bother me. Jesus fed 5,000 and no doubt a lot of them were sinners.
"For that matter, so was my congregation at one time," continued Long, who presides over a 2,300-member church. "We were alcoholics and drug addicts, doing everything a sinner would do. But we heard the gospel and got saved."
"We were saved so we could help the less fortunate," said Marjorie Somers, a church volunteer. "Praise the Lord."