Every Wednesday and Friday morning, in the basement of the Third Street Church of God, an assorted group of Washington area clergy members, businessmen and government workers gathers to pray with a hundred or more street people. After the service the unemployed, indigent and otherwise needy men and women sit down to breakfast with the better-off worshipers. This ritual is unusual among church efforts to feed the poor, because "it brings together indigent or deprived people from the city and affluent people from the suburbs, who come and help out," the Rev. Ernest Gibson, head of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, said of the prayer breakfast.
"This is not a paternalistic service. It is the middle class and the poor really working together," said Wendy Jayne Ellis, assistant director of One Ministries, the group that organizes the breakfasts in the church at Third Street and New Jersey Avenue NW.
"We eat with our group. We don't just give away food. And that's a big difference," said Dalineta Hines, wife of Third Street Church's pastor, the Rev. Samuel Hines.
Last Wednesday, breakfast consisted of of 31 dozen eggs, 7 gallons of orange juice, piles of bacon and sausage and hundreds of English muffins. According to Dalineta Hines, an average of 120 to 130 people is served during the first two weeks of each month and at the end of the month "when the checks run out" the number rises to about 180.
One Ministries, which takes its name from a passage in the Gospel of St. John, is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to unite urban and suburban churches in ministering to the poor.
"A lot of people think these folk just want to give away food," said a man in a tattered black-and-white sweater jacket and a black felt hat who was among about 50 persons waiting in line last Wednesday. "But that's not it. This is about the Lord."
The idea for the breakfast was born one morning in the fall of 1980. A participant in one of the regular prayer breakfasts held at Third Street Church by a group called the Fellowship Movement walked out of the meeting carrying a cup of coffee. A homeless, out-of-work carpenter stopped him and asked where he got it.
Over the following year, the carpenter and several other street people began to attend the Wednesday morning breakfast. For the past year, the street people have generally outnumbered better-off worshipers, according to Ellis. The Friday morning breakfast was added at the request of a local businessman after he attended one of the breakfasts.
And the man who asked about the coffee two years ago now works as the custodian of Third Street Church of God.
The prayer service begins at 7:30 with an assortment of worshipers--some in business suits and others in layers of worn clothing--seated in a semi-circle of metal folding chairs. When the room fills up, the church doors are locked until after the prayer group has been served. Those who wait outside are served later.
Last Wednesday, many of the men and women in line said they were outside because they had come to the church too late--not because they did not want to pray.
"Who wouldn't want to know about the Lord?" said one man, pointing his finger challengingly.
"Besides," said one woman in a tan leather jacket and studded jeans, "the best free food in the city is at SOME So Others Might Eat House," a soup kitchen at 71 O St. NW. She said she was at the Third Street church that day because "on Wednesday, they have oatmeal."
"This program is better than those that throw you some food once a day every four months," declared a man wearing a floppy black cap and a black-and-red plaid hunting jacket.
"Our people don't just don't come here to be served. They take part. They set up chairs, clean up. They feel this is theirs," Dalineta Hines said. "And it is."
"Our people don't just come here to be served. They take part. They set up chairs, clean up. They feel this is theirs," Dalineta Hines said. "And it is."
Ellis said the street people often act as hosts to newcomers at the breakfasts. "The best thing about it is that we actually get to show people the active love of the body of Christ," she said. "You know, three of the people who accepted Jesus in this very service died within a year. The Lord had placed them right here for salvation."
The breakfasts, which cost about $250 a week, are financed by contributions from One Ministries; Third Street Church of God; Evangel Temple, 610 Rhode Island Ave. NE; the National Presbyterian Church & Center, 4101 Nebraska Ave. NW; and a local businessman who prefers to remain anonymous.
One Ministries, formerly known as Urban Ministries, also sponsors a prison ministry at Lorton Reformatory and the "Adopt-A-Block" program, in which urban and suburban church communities jointly support the renovation and rehabilitation of an inner city block and "build Christian brotherhood," Ellis said.
One Ministries Director John H. Staggers Jr., a special assistant to Walter Washington when he was mayor, said the programs of the organization are an attempt "to make Washington a model city.
"The federal government's desire to cut back on social services is based on the assumption that the private and religious sector would pick up the slack," he said. "We decided they needed a model. And we believe God has given us a model, the church, which can respond in a valuable way."
The Rev. John L. Mears, pastor of Evangel Temple, agreed. It is the churches' responsibility, he said, because "the government got involved in many social programs because of the default of the church."
Gibson, of the Greater Washington Council of Churches, praised the organizational skills of Staggers and his ability "to bring resources from evangelical churches [in the suburbs] which would not usually come in."
The mix of city and suburban has not always been so smooth.
"When the street people started coming to the Wednesday breakfast, some of the people from the suburbs didn't," Staggers recalled. "But they're coming back now."
The Wednesday service last week, attended by Dee Jepsen, wife of Sen. Roger W. Jepsen (R-Iowa), and guests from Howard University, included personal testimonies and songs by breakfast regulars.
"This is the greatest thing I've ever seen. You get meals, heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer," said a regular. "But now I come for the fellowship.
"I just can't do a lot of the things I used to do. Of course, I'm a lot broker than I was, too," he said, laughing at himself as the audience of his peers roared.
Charles Marbery, the self-appointed chief dishwasher, explained that many street people came from religious backgrounds. "Most of these folks are like me, they were brought up in the church and just got away from it," he said. "But I know I'm coming back sooner or later."
Marbery said other churches offer meals with a message, but most just offer food. "You can go to SOME House and stand in line and sit down and eat and leave. But here you get something to think about," he said, "and when you're out on the street you need something on your mind."