Ten months ago, the Rev. Willie F. Wilson thought of a novel idea to raise up to $300,000 to help his church minister to the poor: by offering a home at $50 a ticket in the District's first house raffle.
As of yesterday, Wilson's Union Temple Church had sold only 1,500 of the 6,000 tickets it hoped to sell for the raffle, which is scheduled for today. The church may even lose money on the venture. To Wilson, the anemic sales show that too few people are willing to support innovative ideas to help the needy, and that the buck too often stops at his congregation's door.
"There are plenty of churches in this area that I know do not approve of my fund-raising tactics; they see it as gambling. But those same churches do absolutely nothing for the community. Instead they send people here as if we were some kind of social welfare agency," Wilson said.
D.C. City Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), whose area includes Wilson's church, agreed, saying, "Too many churches lock their doors after Sunday services, but not Willie Wilson. . . . Rev. Wilson is more about community involvement than the rituals of the pulpit. He's out there with the people helping them overcome their problems."
Wilson said the three-bedroom, brick house at 2114 14th St. SE was purchased by the church more than a year ago as part of a "real estate business venture." The house will be given to the lucky ticket holder today, despite slow ticket sales.
"I still have faith that people will buy the tickets," he added. "If people would only realize that they are spending $50, which is tax-deductible, for a house that is worth $55,000, then they might think again," said Wilson, "not to mention the fact that they would be helping the church."
Union Temple Baptist Church sits on a hill at 14th and V streets in Anacostia where crowded living conditions, poverty, unemployment and a stagnant business climate have earned the area the nickname "forgotten land."
Wilson describes his church as an "action church" in which people believe in "doing."
"People living in this community have so many problems that it is hard to address them all, but if we just keep talking about them and not doing anything to relieve them, then the problems only grow."
Union Temple's social services, which provide food, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, 50 low-cost housing units in nine buildings and a host of other programs, have earned the church a reputation that many say is unique not only to a church but also to any social service in Southeast.
Pamela Boney, 26, said she wanted to go to school but could not afford the tuition and the rent where she lived before moving into one of the church's apartments. "My rent now is almost half of what it used to be and the apartment is so much nicer . . . and I was able to go back to school," Boney said.
The 1,000-member church has distinguished itself with an elaborate investment program that Wilson said has pumped more than $1 million into neighborhood housing. The church, in turn, rents the housing to people in need at an average rent of $180 a month.
"Union Temple is more than a church because they serve everyone who needs them -- not like so many other churches around here who only serve their own members," said a spokeswoman for the city Department of Human Services, whose Anacostia office is two blocks away on Good Hope Road.
"There have been plenty of times where we have referred some of our clients to the church for a meal or clothing and sometimes counseling," she added, "and each and every time, they have come back clothed and whatever else they went there for."
William Jessup, an unemployed painter, said that he eats at the Soul Bowl, the Union Temple's food program, at least three times a week. "I come here with my daughter because the food is so good and the people here are so nice. . . . But a lot of my buddies around here come here because they don't have anywhere else to go."
In addition to the Soul Bowl, a program that feeds 50 to 60 people twice a day, Wilson said, the church has a computer training service, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program run by former addicts and alcoholics, a prison ministry that travels as far as West Virginia, financial workshops, a group home for delinquent girls, and a credit union.
Money to finance the church's programs has been raised by several events, including the annual Down Home Festival that attracts as many as 5,000 people each spring, concerts that attract popular gospel singers such as the Clark Sisters and Andre Crouch, and an annual investors banquet that has featured singers such as Melba Moore and Gladys Knight.
Wilson said he believes one must help people rise above poverty before one can reach them spiritually. Even if the church loses money on the raffle, it will continue a $2 million renovation of an apartment building for low-income people.
"Union Temple has made quite an impact on this community . . . . There are fewer winos and people using drugs because so many of them are working with the church now," said Joanne Bullard, program manager for Neighborhood Housing Services, a private nonprofit organization that assists people with housing.