Coming down the center aisle of the Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ World Wide, the white-haired man with a cherubic face threw his arms out, flinging his hands heavenward in a gesture that seemed to seek approval from above.
With this dramatic arrival of Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, repeated nightly during the church's 28th annual convocation last week, the already excited overflow crowd in the 3,000-seat auditorium seemed to swell with enthusiasm.
Williams, who founded the church in a second-hand tent and now presides over its operation from headquarters in a $3.5 million temple located at 1130 New Jersey Ave. NW, said he views its growth and prosperity as one of the "modern day miracles."
During peak hours, an estimated 5,000 persons attended the gathering for the daytime workshops and convocations followed by fervent religious services in the evenings.
One church official has estimated the size of the Bible Way church at 500,000, with members primarily in the United States and churches located in several other countries, including the West African nations of Liberia and Ghana and Trinidad in the Caribbean.
"Achievements of faith," Williams called the day-care centers, churches, schools and housing complexes that are all part of Bible Way in parts of the United States and West Africa.
Williams, 78, was interviewed in his church office, where he was flanked and echoed by his lieutenants, the vice bishops who govern the 350 congregations of Bible Way and who seem to regard him as a father figure.
One achievement that Williams views with particular pride is "building the temple," which serves as national church headquarters and is situated close to the exit to I-395 -- a development Williams said threatened to undo his work in the 1960s.
"All over the country, highways were going through church buildings and we took the position that it wouldn't be appropriate for them to destroy our church," Williams recalled.
Williams said the federal Department of Transportation had plans to take the final part of the interstate right through "my pulpit." But before his fight was over, the minister had gained support from many people on Capitol Hill, including then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
"The vice president said, 'Don't let them move one inch against this church until it crosses my desk,' " Williams said.
That was not the first of Williams' brushes with adversity. In 1952 he tried to integrate the D.C. public schools by attempting to enroll his son in an all-white school. Williams said he also took an active part in the 1963 March on Washington and served as the local chair of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
None of these were easy confrontations for the minister, who says coming to Washington was a bit intimidating. "I came here in 1927 like a small David coming up against Goliath," Williams said, adding, "There were already many established churches in this town." So the Lynchburg, Va., native took for his pulpit a fireplug at Seventh and O streets NW and started his ministry preaching on the corner.
He later moved up to a second-hand tent on a piece of land he has kept and built on ever since.
"God placed us here so our message and witness would be very visible," said Williams, whose message can now be heard throughout the United States and Africa on the Bible Way Radio broadcast.
"We now have a broadcast in South Africa," Williams said. "We hope that it will give the people of that country the strength to stand up against oppression."
Another project that the Bible Way Church has undertaken is located deep in the bush country of Liberia, where the church runs two schools equivalent to the first through seventh grades and which together have about 250 students.
During last week's convention, the governing body of bishops presented $20,000 to the church's bishop in West Africa to buy four-wheel-drive vehicles, which "will provide better access to the schools," said Bishop Andrew Toewiah Davies, who is head of the schools.
According to Davies, "These schools were previously funded by the Liberian government and when funding was dropped, the Bible Way Church picked up the tab and has pledged over $100,000 for the running of these schools."
Reflecting on his career and on the church empire he has nourished, Williams said that despite the confrontations and struggles he has faced, he hopes people will remember him as a "mighty man of God who didn't hate anybody."