Seven days a week, Calvary Baptist Church echoes with the Chinese dialects of its neighbors whose passage into a new and strange land the congregation is trying to ease.
Preschoolers learn English and American ways, older children get an after-school workout in the church gym and senior citizens gather for lunch to watch videotapes of a Chinese soap opera.
The church, at 755 Eighth St. NW, offers shelter and breakfast everyday to about 35 or 40 homeless women and a lounge where street people can watch TV or read the newspaper for a few hours in the mornings. It boasts a 100 percent success rate in training and placing women immigrants in catering jobs.
If proposed changes that make "religious worship" the primary criterion for property-tax exemption for churches are adopted, Calvary and other D.C. churches' efforts to provide charity and community service will be largely wiped out, according to some church leaders.
Under the regulations proposed by the city's Department of Finance and Revenue, churches must use 60 percent of their total floor space for religious worship more than 30 percent of the time the church is open to qualify for a property tax exemption.
"Ridiculous!" said the Rev. George Hill, Calvary's senior pastor, when told of the proposed changes. "You're really rewarded for doing nothing but coming together for songs and prayer. . . .
"We put 20 times as much effort and resources into our community programs as we do the worship services," Hill said.
The proposed redefinition of tax exemptions for schools, hospitals and other nonprofit institutions was issued earlier this month without warning and without consultation with institutions involved.
The sweeping changes were originally scheduled to go into effect on Feb. 1, after only a 10-day period for public comment.
However, the comment period has been extended and public hearings on the proposals have been set for Feb. 21, 25 and 27, according to Sophia Green of the finance department's legal staff. Further information will be published in the Feb. 1 D.C. Register, she said.
Melvin W. Jones, director of the finance department, has said that the city is trying not to wipe out tax exemptions but to clarify the existing law.
But religious leaders are particularly irate over the proposal, which would penalize them for providing services that both local and federal government agencies have asked them to provide.
"You and other D.C. officials have frequently called on the religious community and voluntary sector to become more involved in meeting the needs of the District. We have responded," Auxiliary Bishop Eugene A. Marino of the Roman Catholic archdiocese wrote Mayor Marion Barry.
"Now we are dismayed to find the D.C. government offering rules and regulations, without adequate notice or consultation, which could undermine our efforts to help meet the needs of the District of Columbia," Marino wrote.
"I'd bill the city" for the tax exemption lost if the measures are adopted, said the Rev. John Steinbruck, whose Luther Place Church provides a number of charitable functions that would jeopardize the church's tax exemption under the proposed regulations.
"We're saving the city hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Steinbruck, in social services at the Logan Circle church and the half dozen church-owned buildings across N Street, which the church calls N Street Village.
Every night the church provides bed and breakfast for as many as 100 homeless women, he said. During the day, he said, 70 to 80 people are "in and out" for meals, a bath, a chance to do laundry. The church also operates a free clinic, staffed by professional health volunteers who also make home visits; a food and used clothing distribution center; and a residential center to help destitute women get a new start.
"We get 50,000 persons each year coming through the Village and the church -- and that doesn't count the counseling, or the ones that are just lonely and want to talk," he said.
"It would certainly hit us hard," said Erna Steinbruck, who works with her husband in the ministry to the homeless. "I can't believe the city would do something like this, when we're doing their work."
St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, at 16th and Newton streets NW, operates a free clinic, feeds 250 to 300 hungry persons on weekends and a smaller number of senior citizens during the week, runs a preschool, a job placement service and a food pantry.
If the proposed changes go into effect, "it could be the end of many of our programs," said Ginger Hooven, senior warden of the Episcopal church. "Like a lot of churches in the '60s, we got rid of our endowment and we live from day to day."
"The church has always been about education . . . about charitable purposes and helping people who are in need," said Episcopal Bishop John T. Walker. "If the organized church is not able to carry out its mission, it seems to me to be undue interference of the government."
Taxation carries "the power to destroy," he said. "Any government could destroy religion" through taxation.
The proposed definition of "religious worship" as the sole basis for tax exemption raises First Amendment questions, some church-state experts said. "As long as tax-exemption provision is part of the civil law, somebody has to define what is to be exempt," said the Rev. Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches. "But the government can't apply it in such a way as to benefit some religions and not others."
Calvary Church's Hill seemed to sum up the feelings of church leaders here on the proposal. "They will have some screaming meemies on their doorstep if they try that," he said.