In any other part of the city, the colorful entourage that marched along Martin Luther King Avenue yesterday would have been just another Easter parade, and the cooking contest that followed outside Union Temple Baptist Church would have been part of just another block party featuring a traditional array of cakes and pies.
But this was Anacostia, unabashedly calling its parade a "Chitlin' Strut and Chicken Stroll." It was all part of a "Down Home Festival," a fund-raiser for a church program that offers guidance classes to youngsters.
The parade and festival are just one of the church's many programs to raise money to assist the community. Here in Southeast Washington, in the heart of what Union Temple's pastor, the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, calls "a forgotten land," is perhaps one of the youngest, most active church groups in the city.
Drawing on African heritage and contemporary economics, the 900-member church, at 14th and V streets SE, has distinguished itself with an elaborate investment program that has pumped more than $1 million into neighborhood housing, education and health care services.
This month, Union Temple is expected to open a 50-unit housing project for the elderly and a medical center for mentally retarded adults living in the area. The church already helps hundreds of neighborhood residents--many who are not church members--through a dental program, a cooperative food purchasing program and several job training programs.
The members, whose average age is 27, boast of being an "action church," and pride themselves on serving "the whole man."
"You can't talk to a man about God if he's hungry," says the Rev. Wilson. "So we feed them first."
Kenneth Lewis, a 51-year-old admitted alcoholic, was living proof.
He is part of a church program called the Soul Bowl, which feeds between 80 and 100 persons twice a day. Shortly after the church was founded in 1967, meals at the Soul Bowl consisted only of soup. Today, 15 years later, the needy get a full meal. Those who enter the Soul Bowl program are then put to work in the kitchen and are asked to perform volunteer work for the church's special functions.
"I was just a street walker, drinking every day--in fact, I had a drink today," Lewis said. "But they still give me a job. They reach out for you. Most people in my life talk down to me. But they talk straight-up business. They don't give you God. They give you a bowl of food, then let you find God yourself. It may sound stupid, but it works."
When local religious leaders gathered for a recent forum on the "Role of the Church in the Black Community," the primary concerns of residents were the accountability of church leaders and economic development, including food stores and day-care centers.
"Congregations are asking what can they do after the 11 a.m. service," said Lawrence N. Jones, dean of Howard University's School of Religion, who participated in the forum. "What is our social responsibility? There is a broad spectrum of church congregations in Washington, some that believe politics and religion should not mix, some who believe they are inseparable. But no church can ignore the socioeconomic conditions of its members."
The Rev. Wilson, who attended Howard's School of Religion, has taken that philosophy a step further, maintaining not only that the church should concern itself with the conditions of its members, but with anyone who comes through the church door.
A year ago, Wilson said, seven shabbily dressed persons came to Union Temple on a Sunday morning asking for food and lodging. The men said they had been to nine other churches throughout the city, and had not been allowed inside.
After the men were fed and rested, they prepared to leave, but first disclosed that they were not bums, but seminary students from Virginia Union University in Richmond.
Of the churches tested, Wilson said, Union Temple was the only one to open its doors to the men.
"Our message is based on a great love for our people and the need to understand who we are, that our history did not start with slavery and that we have a glorious past," Wilson said. "You hear a lot about the black church being the most powerful institution in the black community. We like to show it."