As far as raffles go, Washington has never seen anything quite like what's been happening at the Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast. Then again, there aren't many churches quite like Union Temple.
First, there was the house, a renovated duplex that the church purchased and fixed up for $65,000 as part of its investment program, then raffled off last December. Tickets went for $50 apiece, and the church broke even on the deal.
"If we had sold tickets for $1, we could have made more than $300,000," said Lamont Mitchell, chairman of the church's raffle committee. "We learned that people would rather buy 50 $1 tickets than one $50 ticket."
So the church tried again in May, raffling off a mink coat. This time, Union Temple made $40,000 in profits.
A few weeks later, they rolled out a Mercedes-Benz, a $32,000 car to be had for only $1.
"When we came up with the idea of a car, the pastor said, 'Cadillac,' but that had a stigma in the black community, so we decided on a prize that would sell itself," Mitchell recalled.
The selection paid off to the tune of $120,000 in raffle ticket sales.
But it has not been all smooth sailing for Union Temple, a relatively young church at 14th and U streets SE. By daring to be different, the church pastor, the Rev. Willie Wilson, has been criticized by some old-line parishioners as well as conservative church leaders around the city for using "devil tactics," like raffling, in the name of the Lord.
Some people have been outraged that Wilson uses the church to sponsor concerts for neighborhood youth that feature rock groups like Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers onstage with gospel choirs.
Others don't like the idea of the church holding "male and female rap sessions," or karate classes, not to mention showing first-run movies at the church.
At a church-sponsored "Family Fling," held Labor Day in Anacostia Park, Wilson answered his critics with fiery oratory.
"The black church is the most powerful and influential institution in the black community," he said. "This is not a compliment. It's an indictment when you have a church on every corner and in the midst of poverty and blight."
Wilson's message to his congregation is that they have to invest in the community, and most of the church's efforts are directed to that end.
Wilson, 39, became pastor of the church in 1973, just six years after it was founded. He is a graduate of the Howard University Divinity Church.
"I wanted to return the church to its rightful place as the center of community life," Wilson said. "I don't see anything wrong with the church sponsoring dances. If more kids could go to church to dance, they wouldn't get in trouble with drugs that are so much a part of other environments."
Wilson has much support from his 1,000-member congregation, about half of whom are college graduates from suburban Maryland and Northwest Washington who Wilson says yearn to be involved in worthwhile community efforts.
Since 1981 the church has served more than 600,000 meals to homeless and needy residents. The church also sponsors a very successful home for female youth offenders and engages in a variety of job placement and counseling programs.
Over the past four years the church has purchased and renovated 100 apartments units in Southeast. The latest is the Wayne Terrace project, which was renamed Agape Town Square at Second Street and Mississippi Avenue. The ultramodern apartments, which are a joint effort of the church and the D.C. and federal governments, are rented to low- and moderate-income residents.
Yet the complaints continue. On a local radio talk show last week, one caller warned Wilson that he was "going to Hell" for holding his raffles. But if that caller had seen the scores of youth who have been drawn to the church since the raffles began or the flood of good works that have resulted from the proceeds, she would have to conclude that the Lord does, indeed, work in mysterious ways.