When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the Rev. Tom Nees sat numbly before his television set in Dayton, Ohio, watching with the rest of the nation as riots broke out in Washington and other cities.
A minister in the Church of the Nazarene, an evangelical Protestant denomination, Nees said he had no notion then that King's death would bring him eventually to Washington, where he has made rebuilding one block of its riot-devastated core his life's work.
Fifteen years later, Nees, a trim, boyish blond who looks as if he belongs in an Iowa cornfield instead of a slum, is a fixture in the 1400 block of Belmont Street NW.
Belmont Ss a gritty, arid place, lined with worn apartment buildings and boarded-up row houses, wearing an atmosphere tved want.
At one end sits the Pitts Motor Hotel, a city shelter for homeless families. Children play in theees in the yards and hang around waiting for the ice cream truck. Many residents are unemployed, and many are y two blocks from 14th and U streets, the center of the city's heroin traffic. Drugs and alcohol are a constanre, Nees has founded not only a church, he also is the director of a thriving and unusual social service agency that operates an emergency shelter, a medical clw firm, and children's programs, all under the roof of a formerly abandoned apartment building at 1417 Belmontamed, perhaps in recognition of a commodity acutely needed on Belmont Street, The Commmunity of Hope.
"Whenn church after King's death , I found that most people were relieved that he was gone. . . . I felt then I hathere," he said.
In 1971, he moved his family to Washington where he had been appointed to another largely white, suburban-oriented church. There, Nees assemdful of volunteers and began to work "very gingerly and timidly" one night a week with an inner-city church, trying to create decent housing for poor people. In, he founded the Community of Hope of the Nazarene.
Nees said traditional churches had defined their roles of what the church did had to do with insular kinds of things, what we call housekeeping," he said.
His chuistic ministry. "We're not saving souls, we're saving people," he said. Today, its handful of volunteers has gstaff of 30.
Initially wary of becoming a stereotypical white leader in a black community, Nees said he hasic on that matter. "I'm doing some things I said I'd never do. I used to say I should be behind the scenes, and not out front making the decisions." idents do not appear to share his concern. "You'd never know he was a white man unless you looked at him," saiho lives on Belmont Street.
"It makes me uneasy to be described as a leader, but that's what people in the area expect me to do, use my influence with the city or the police department," id.
The organization is growing at a time when other social service agencies have to cut back or close. It receives no federal funds and $56,000 contract with the District to house families now in city emergency shelters and help them to become s Nees and his staff raise the $400,000 necessary to operate the Community of Hope from a variety of sources. Re from a handful of local churches; local foundations, such as the Meyer and Cafritz foundations; the March ofe out-of-town churches and foundations.
"They have results," said Richard Schubert, a member of the Communiof directors.
Schubert, president of the American Red Cross, said he became cynical about the effectiveness of inner-city groups when he served as an under secretary of labor in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
"I'm impressed with their dedic perseverance and results. They can demonstrate that they can deliver," Schubert said.
"They're a very can-up," said D.C. City Council Chairman David Clarke, who has worked with the group in the past. "They're willingnecessary to get the job done."
Some residents of the neighborhood say their lives have been changed dram the Community of Hope on their block.
In 1973, when Nees first began working with Belmont Street residentsescribed himself, "a stone alcoholic." He rehabilitated himself because of Nees, Royster said.
"Tom was nevess you," Royster said. "But he had his little way of making you feel bad. It was easier to face him six days r than duck him six days a week and get drunk."
The Community of Hope, unlike some other social service agemmunity and a family as well. Nees' sister Lois Smith is director of the health clinic. Her husband Roy is thelogist. Beverly Lundsford, a registered nurse, runs the adolescent health program; her husband John works in tSome volunteers and staff members live in the building. And most of the staff, including doctors and lawyers, or its Sunday worship service, Nees said.
Members seem to be suffused with a strong religious commitment toh motivates them more strongly than money. "I feel you're given a lot more than you give in many ways," said Deus, one of the physicians at the health clinic.
"There is a sense of call in being here and doing this," s a bearded, soft-spoken lawyer in the four-person law firm operated out of two rooms at the Community of Hope.r fees based on the clients' ability to pay and divide up the receipts at the end of each month.
"In most rtions, there is a feeling that the call is limited to the members of the clergy," Lundsford continued. "We donWe turn it around and ask the members of the clergy what they are doing in a substantive way to help people." Hope relies heavily on volunteers, who help keep it from depending on government grants. The church acquired ir $75,000 after the landlord had virtually abandoned it.
Except for a $100,000 grant from the D.C. Departmend Community Development that paid for a new boiler and windows, the members and volunteers did all the renova paid staff members are practically volunteers. "The doctors here make in a year what most doctors make in a mNees, reluctant to talk about personal sacrifices, said only that accepting a somewhat reduced standard of livositive experience for his family.
"When I came to Washington, we were living in Potomac, a predominantly we-class area where the kids seemed to be on an unlimited expense account. We both felt that that was not a goodren," he said. He and his wife Pat, an artist, now live in Silver Spring. They have four children.
MembersHope said they sometimes question their effectiveness and wonder if their efforts are worth the struggle.
"us on what you expect out of the situation," said Lundsford, who has worked with the organization for eight yeto the situation expecting to make a substantive change in the world, or the city or the block, you'll be disappointed. The point is just being here."
Nees said he canee that the poor may be forced out of the 14th Street corridor by changes expected to result from subway constnicipal office building at 14th and U streets. When that happens, the Community of Hope may move to Southeast, work in one little neighborhood and deal with the microissues,"you expand that to the city or the world, that's when you run into problems."