For I was hungry, and ye gave me meat, I was thirsty and ye gave me drink . . . St. Matthew 25. From program of the Advent IV service, the Washington Cathedral, Dec. 19, 1982

The challenge was to help feed the hungry.

During Sunday's 11 a.m. service at the Washington Cathedral, cans of meat, chicken, soups, vegetables and assorted food-stuffs loaded down a table at the main entrance. When the table could hold no more, visitors placed bulging grocery bags on the floor.

For the third Sunday, groceries have poured into the massive Gothic cathedral at Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues NW, since Bishop John T. Walker announced that Washington area Episcopal churches distributing food to the needy were exhausting their weekly collections by mid-week.

Staff members at the Cathedral wanted to lend a hand, but with no membership and an ever-changing group of worshipers on Sunday mornings, they faced a problem in collecting foodstuffs for the effort.

The solution was a newspaper ad that has garnered hundreds of canned and boxed food items over the last three weeks, according to Michael Hamilton, canon of the Cathedral, who has headed the food drive.

"I think it's remarkable because the Cathedral's congregation is made up of 50 percent out-of-towners," said Nancy Montgomery, head of public relations for the Cathedral.

Although the Cathedral has participated in occasional food collections through the years, this current effort is its first open-ended food drive, and will not be limited to the holiday season, but will continue indefinitely, Hamilton said.

On Mondays, the Cathedral's maintenance workers pile the donated goods into a truck and haul them to St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, at 16th and Newton streets NW, and to St. Philip's Chapel in Baden, Md.

St. Stephen's, in addition to its meals program, distributes staples daily, except when their supplies run out.

"It would be good if the food would come in as steadily as the people coming in to get it," said Dennis Bethea, director of Social Services at the church. Despite continual food contributions from various Metropolitan-area churches and schools, St. Stephen's strains to help feed the many low-income persons in its community, he said. "We have a good 25 percent more food coming in in recent months , but the need has increased 40 percent."

Out in Baden, Md., at the southern tip of Prince George's County, St. Philip's Chapel serves a congregation with a "different kind of poverty," according to Melvin Turner, the priest there.

"There are people down here without outhouses," said Turner. "But people keep that poverty hidden because there's a lot of pride out here."

"To the extent that people who have can share with people who don't . . . I think it's the right thing to do," Julie Walker, who works as an editor with the Bureau of Mines, offered as explanation for the food drive's success.

Instead of taking a hodgepodge of items taken randomly off a kitchen shelf, Walker planned a meal. Holding up a gigantic can of Beef-a-Roni in one hand, and another of ravioli in the other, Walker explained: "I thought these would be the basis of a meal because they both have meat in them." A brown bag she placed under the table held the vegetable course.

Sandra Houck, a substitute teacher for Fairfax County schools attending service at The Cathedral for the first time Sunday, lamented that her donation, cans of fruit cocktail and lima beans, was "so small and yet if everybody would contribute, you know, we could all help."

Ralph Fisher, a third-year engineering student on Christmas break from Memphis State University, helped the cause by raiding his aunt's pantry of its baked beans and coffee. "Being from the south," said Fisher who's a native Mississippian, "I think things like this help out a lot; it's done in the South all the time."

A tall elderly gentleman in a dark coat searched the table for a place to put his donation. William R. Loomis, a retired Navy officer from Silver Spring, said he attends Cathedral services two to three times a month and has been bringing food since the drive began.

Celebrant Michael Hamilton reminded the worshipers, as did the program, that gifts of canned food were being received for the hungry at all Sunday Cathedral services.

Nancy Duncan, a lay reader dressed in a flowing white garment, ascended the steps of the lectern where she led this national congregation in the "prayers of the people," intoning a plea for "especially the hungry, homeless and unemployed."

Later in the service, usher Susan Collins proceeded up the nave of the Cathedral with a basket of the donated food. She was preceded by three lay people from the congregation each carrying a silver vessel -- one containing water, one wine, and the other hosts bread , and followed by two ushers bearing money on offering plates.

These were gifts brought to the altar to be blessed, explained head usher Mike Hyde. Water, wine, bread and money are the usual offerings, but food for the poor is a recent addition to the ritual.

The Cathedral's effort will not end when the holidays do, Hamilton said. Citing welfare cuts and unemployment, he said, "More people than ever are genuinely hungry; this is more than just a seasonal hunger."