Below the imposing west tower of Calvary United Methodist Church, a massive, dark, fortresslike building on Columbia Road, hangs a colorful, cheerful sign.
Carved out of fine wood, it depicts serene peasants in a romanticized Central American village. Written across the top is "Cafe Casa Del Pueblo" (House of the People) and on the bottom, "Bienvenidos, Los Domingos 7:00-9:30 PM," which means "Welcome, Sundays 7-9:30 p.m.
This open invitation to one of the most unusual coffeehouses in town is accepted every Sunday night by residents of the ethnically diverse Columbia Road neighborhood.
Started in September 1983 by the Rev. Greg Brown of Calvary, the Casa Del Pueblo, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW, transplants a quintessential Latin tradition -- the coffeehouse as social center -- to the church's sprawling fellowship room.
Within the warm, clean, wood-floored room, under stained glass Gothic windows and a giant "Casa Del Pueblo" banner, coffeehouse patrons, mostly Hispanic refugees, find a welcome respite from the problems of life in a strange country. The coffeehouse also attracts the neighborhood's African refugees.
Amateur or professional balladeers, who are themselves recent immigrants, sing songs they learned in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, accompanied by guitar, drums, trumpet or mariachis, the way they were meant to be heard.
Poetry evoking the spirit of far-off homelands is recited and occasionally an author reads his own works. Politics are discussed with newly discovered openness and without fear of reprisal.
And issues, highly topical ones such as immigration laws, education, domestic violence, and child abuse, are presented clearly and compassionately by guest speakers.
"We had to intensify our relationship with the community," Brown explained. "The idea of a coffeehouse came up. When you get people to sit and talk together, things happen."
About 50 people come each Sunday night; roughly half are women and a fifth of them are children. Sessions vary from the strictly festive to the semi-instructive, but they are always entertaining.
Recently, a Guatemalan woman alternated personal accounts of political atrocities in her homeland with demonstrations of Mayan dress and customs.
On another night, a Pepco spokesman on energy efficiency was the guest speaker; he requested a guitar and also performed. Another time, Methodist preacher Yolanda Pupo Ortiz regaled the coffeehouse by singing old Cuban songs. Popular regular visitors include dancers from the Caribbean Heritage School.
"We get a real bohemian scene here," said manager Leonel Cruz. "And everyone loves it."
But no coffeehouse could succeed without the most enticing hook -- food. Casa Del Pueblo offers plenty: platanos fritos (fried plantains), tacos, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), pasteles de carne (meat pies), and frijoles (beans). The menu changes weekly to offer a variety of foods authentically prepared by local residents and delicious enough to Latinize the most stalwart fast-food aficionado.
On most Sundays meals are served by volunteers ( Calvary members or "friends of Casa Del Pueblo") who wait on tables and collect money.
On special occasions, such as traditional Spanish and African holidays and religious celebrations, the dining becomes more intimate. Food is arrayed on buffet tables and visitors pay whatever they can. Cruz finds these times particularly rewarding.
"It's a more familiar, more warm approach," Cruz said, "and it crosses racial and ethnic boundaries. Recently we commemorated the Sabra/Shatilla massacres in Palestine this way. We hosted three different cultures: Hispanics, blacks, and Palestinians. Despite the language and cultural differences, all three felt as if they had something in common, and everything worked very well."
Cruz, 36, a former Catholic priest in El Salvador who is now a political refugee, seems well suited to run Casa Del Pueblo. He is helped by a Mexican Methodist minister, the Rev. Moises Yanel, 50, and the lean, energetic Brown, 35, who is in his third year at Calvary.
The coffeehouse is an apparent success, possibly reversing Calvary's 20-year decline in the neighborhood.
Once an influential, all-white parish with more than 1,200 members, the church membership changed as whites left the area and were replaced by blacks. But as an all-black church, membership continued to decline. About five years ago the church realized that the surrounding community had changed again and that many of its neighbors were part of the growing influx of Latin American, Caribbean, and African refugees. The Casa del Pueblo seemed the perfect icebreaker.
Although Thanksgiving, an exclusively American holiday, will not inspire a special night, the Casa last week did celebrate Mexico's Independence Day.
"That," smiled Mexican handyman Fernando Escovez, "is something to really give thanks for."