A little over three years ago, Galilee Baptist Church was a modest congregation of about 150 members worshiping in a Northeast storefront building where the church was founded nearly 25 years before.
Today, housed in a modernized brick structure on a quiet Southeast Washington street, Galilee is a fast-growing, thriving church of some 600 members who have raised several hundred thousand dollars to renovate and expand their building at 2252 Minnesota Ave. SE.
During its main Sunday morning service, the packed church fairly rocks, its mostly young members on their feet, clapping, singing and swaying with two full gospel choirs backed up by a drummer and an electric guitarist.
And in the pulpit is the man largely responsible for the transformation of Galilee, the Rev. Eugene Weathers, who at 27, is one of the city's youngest pastors and who had never headed a church before he took the post in 1979.
"When I woke up this morning, I felt like praying, I felt like shouting, I felt like preaching," Weathers boomed, opening his sermon last Sunday. "I couldn't wait to get to church."
Weathers' energy and enthusiasm have been the catalyst for creating a record of growth and progress at Galilee that many larger churches might envy.
In just over three years Galilee has more than tripled its membership. Eight people joined last Sunday, and 36 signed up last month, part of a steady stream that has meant more money, activities and expansion for the church.
The members have raised $100,000 to enlarge the church seating capacity and add classrooms and a new facade. They have borrowed another $200,000 for the nearly completed two-year renovation project.
Weathers, who spent his boyhood summers chopping cotton in the Mississippi Delta where he was born, began preaching at age 16 shortly after his family moved to Detroit.
Weathers continued to work as a minister without benefit of ordination while he studied religion and sociology at Bishop College in Dallas, Tex., and at churches in the Washington area during his divinity school training at Howard University.
When he became pastor of Galilee, he encouraged a "strong evangelizing bent" among the members. He urged them to go out and seek converts using tracts and summaries of Weathers' sermons that they printed themselves.
In his book-filled office at Galilee, Weathers acknowledged that his youth was once a liability with some of the church's original members. He said they thought he'd make a "good preacher but not much of a leader." There was a "falling away" with a few members and some -- "less than 12" -- left after he took over.
Now, many long-term parishioners who had doubts initially praise their pastor's dynamic, aggressive style and teaching-through-preaching abilities. They view the attendant changes positively. They cite the renovation and expansion effort as an example of his willingness to act boldly and "on faith" before the money for projects was available.
Weathers is a "very strong young man," said McKeever Posey, a church member for 23 years. Posey said she likes the "live service" at Galilee and the way Weathers inspires the congregation each Sunday. Other members said that quality often gets the people who visit to come back again.
Usually, about 500 people attend the main Sunday service. About one-third of the members live in the neighborhood, a section of old but neat brick row houses and grassy yards. The rest come from other parts of the metropolitan area, primarily the District and Prince George's County. Most of the members are 18 to 35 years old.
The Rev. Charles Lanier, youth minister and a member for two decades, said the young people are "looking for something which they can believe in . . . and trust."
"It took me awhile to find a church that was authentic and had any enthusiasm," said Fred Managa, 34, of Oxon Hill. "I know something real when I see it," he said, and this church "seemed like it was on fire."
For the past month the Junior Deacons, which Managa heads, have gone recruiting at a nearby basketball court during the worship to bring youngsters into the service. Some of the youths come back on their own, Managa said.
Another young member, 17-year-old Marsa Grooms of Capitol Heights, said she likes the preaching and the friendliness she finds at the church. "I just feel good when I go out" after the sermon, she said.
Weathers thinks the growth has occurred because the members are like him, "conservative or fundamentalist when it comes to the teachings of the church and less traditional about services.
"We don't have bulletins, we don't follow an order" on Sunday, he said. "I just come in and whatever happens, happens." He said the members agree "that you cannot order the spirit of God."
Weathers is a "very thoughtful and reflective preacher," said Dr. John Eubanks, a professor of religion and sociology at Howard University Divinity School, where Weathers won the school's 1980 preaching award. The young minister sees it as his "responsibility to help people think and understand the Bible and understand the implications of the Bible for the current issues that we face," Eubanks said.
The now-articulate Weathers was once an "easily embarrassed" youth who was not accustomed to speaking in public, he said.
Under the tutoring of a Detroit teacher, who became his mentor, however, he overcame his shyness. Before long he was preaching at his church, Second Canaan Baptist in Detroit, where he became an associate minister at 17.
As a child in Mississippi, Weathers said he was "made to go to church," by his widowed mother. Unable to understand the shouting, the emotions or the abstract concepts in the preaching he heard, he did not enjoy it, he said. But his mother, a deeply religious domestic worker who became the first black traffic patrolwoman in their tiny town of Belzoni, Miss., exemplified her faith to him by living it. She "used to get people off the street and feed them" despite her own poverty, he said.
"I could see that love in my mother," he added, "and then I began to understand." Weathers said that was the beginning of his career of bringing the gospel to others.
Last Sunday, after a Galilee gospel choir finished its spirited rendition of "I'm Satisfied," Weathers launched into his sermon.
"What did you come to do this morning?" he called to the crowd packed into the pews and seated on folding chairs set up at the rear of the church. "I don't think I heard you," he teased. And this time, the responses of "Praise the Lord!" and "Thank you, Jesus" resounded more heartily.
Weathers settled back in the pulpit. "There's nothing like a satisfied customer," he beamed.