Worshipers filled Evangel Temple's 2,000 seats, overflowed folding chairs in the aisles and stood pressed against the glass of the packed balcony. They had come to see the founder and pastor, the Rev. John L. Meares, ordained in a dazzling ceremony as the first presiding bishop of the church and of the International Evangelical Church and Missionary Association.
A 10-piece orchestra played strong and sweet. A hundred-voice choir in flowing gold robes marched down the aisles singing, "There's excitement in the air . . . ." A film crew brought by a visiting minister recorded the event and a sign language interpreter translated for deaf worshipers.
"If you're in a hurry today, you're in the wrong place," Virgil Meares, the older of the pastor's two sons, told the congregation. Both sons are Evangel Temple elders.
The thousands who flocked to Meares' ordination stayed through the four-hour service and still were reluctant to depart.
Evangel Temple, one of Washington's largest and fastest growing congregations, housed in a modern technology-filled $3.5 million building at 610 Rhode Island Ave. NE, usually draws about 3,000 persons at each of its two regular Sunday services.
Meares, who founded Evangel Temple in a Northeast tent in 1955, has led it to become a multimillion-dollar operation. As a white pastor of an almost entirely black congregation, Meares has a controversial history. Members have twice tried to challenge his leadership. Some black pastors praise his service to the inner city, while others are confounded by and concerned about his evangelical style, which attracts members from other churches.
For 10 years he has been president of the International Evangelical Church and Missionary Association, an interdenominational fellowship of more than 400 churches worldwide. There are seven or eight member churches in the U.S., including Evangel Temple, according to a World Council of Churches publication.
Meares' ordination elevates him above all church leaders in the fellowship, including some who preside over hundreds of churches in other countries. The organizations' leaders decided to make Meares its "bishop of bishops," because "he has risen above others," and to increase the fellowship's recognition, according to the Rev. John Petrocelli, a founder and elder of Evangel Temple.
"It's an unspeakable day. Love abounds here," said Angela Paul, a 22-year-old Howard University student, with tears dripping onto her white sweater during the exuberant service of shouting, singing, dancing and "speaking in tongues" -- the unintelligible personal language heard when a worshiper believes God is speaking to him.
During the ceremony, the Rev. Nicholas Bhengu, 72, of South Africa, said that when he first came to Evangel Temple "there were black and white people," but the number of whites diminished over the years until "I could count on my fingers the white people in the church. I began to fear for my brother (Meares) in those days," he said.
"But John Meares stuck," said Bhengu. "People in South Africa say he is a white man. I say he is a man of God. We love John in South Africa. We love this man." Meares, dressed in a white robe, sat quietly, wiping away his tears with a white handkerchief.
Conducting the ceremony were Bishops W. Robert McAlister of Brazil, Benson A. Idahosa of Nigeria and Earl P. Paulk Jr. of Atlanta, who pressed their hands on Meares' head as he knelt before them. The three bishops' titles are organizational or business designations within the church, but Meares' new label indicates higher, spiritual leadership, according to McAlister.
"It is the highest office to which a man can aspire in the Christian church," he said.
"John Levin Meares, by the authority given to me as bishop of the Pentecostal Church of Brazil . . . and with support of the Holy Spirit of God . . . I consecrate you as bishop of the Evangel Temple in Washington, D.C., and bishop of the International Evangelical Church," McAlister said.
When the men lifted their hands from his shoulders, Meares lowered his head and wept. They helped him up and placed a scarlet chasuble over his head. Another minister hung a cross around Meares' neck, and McAlister placed a bishop's ring on Meares' finger.
"I present to you, your bishop," McAlister said to the congregation as he stepped to the front of the platform with Meares. The new bishop slowly turned around the room, his hands folded in prayer. The congregation stood, clapped and cheered.
"I never dreamed I'd have a people as great as you are. I am a rich man. This is my treasure," Meares said in a cracking, barely audible voice, pointing around the room to the worshipers. "I am your servant and I will gladly lay my life down for you."
Members came forward to congratulate Meares. He knelt to greet the children.
"Thank you for taking the time to love us," said a 4-year-old girl in a pink, ruffled dress.
At the benediction, few left. Instead, hundreds of people lined up around the sanctuary to kiss and hug their new bishop. The choir was still singing. The orchestra was still playing. And people were still dancing in the aisles.