If tradition holds, hundreds of Washington's neediest people will line up outside Calvary Baptist Church in the heart of Chinatown by 11 a.m. this Thanksgiving Day. The line probably will snake around the sanctuary and the Rev. George Hill probably will come out and personally shake hands with the first wave of diners when the doors open at noon, as he has done for the last 11 years.
This kindly and unusual tradition began a dozen years ago when Hill and his congregation decided to open the doors of the church and feed some of the city's poor. The response was moderate -- 150 people turned up at Calvary to eat. The next year, 300 people came, and the numbers have increased each year. Today, Calvary, located at Eighth and H streets NW, expects to feed 800 people.
But it's not just the large crowd that makes Thanksgiving dinner different at Calvary. It is the ambiance and spirit. The church members don't assume they are feeding the pitiful poor. Instead they transform dinner for a sea of forgotten humanity into a "family" celebration.
"It's a time when we meet as brothers and sisters," says Hill. "It is one of the few places and situations where people who are the most marginal in our society are treated with respect and not with condescension . . . . We come together as family, as part of the humanity of the nation's capital, enjoying one another."
Instead of ladling out turkey and stuffing cafeteria style, diners, many of whom are dressed in dirty, ragged clothes, sit at tables of 10, each with a host and hostess who carve and serve an individual turkey with all the trimmings.
"We call it a celebration, a time of joy" says the associate minister, the Rev. Rodney Bolton. "Since homeless people experience so many sad times, we want to make this one of the positive times for them."
Many church members, their friends and volunteers delay or postpone their own family celebrations to work in the kitchen or keep bowls of hot vegetables filled to overflowing.
"I had worked for 36 years on one job," says Charles Baldwin, a retired, award-winning Metrobus driver who will be host at a table with his wife, Lorene. "Now that I'm retired, I felt that I should devote some of my time to the welfare of other people. Of course, being a Christian, service to others is always one of the things I try to keep in mind, and as a representative of the church, I try to do what I think is right."
Part of Calvary's appeal to the forgotten lies in the fact that the church does not ignore them the rest of the year. Founders of the Cooperative Urban Ministry, a joint venture of the the handful of churches left downtown, Calvary has helped provide clothing, food and shelter to the city's poor for many years. Moreover, the church sleeps 35 homeless women every night and serves a daily free lunch to the poor.
But Thanksgiving is a special tradition, and parishioners don't just try to stuff their needy guests, they try to make them feel extra special.
And over the years, the word has gotten around among the homeless that Calvary gives a great party. This year, the One-Star Theatre Company, a local group, will put on a musical program. Clowns and people in gorilla and turkey costumes will provide a festive air. Church members have cooked 65 turkeys, using funds donated by their own congregation, their sister downtown and suburban congregations, and the United Black Fund.
But it's not just the growing numbers who come to dinner each year that let Calvary know that its efforts are appreciated.
Three years ago a homeless woman finished her turkey dinner, reached down into her meager sack of treasures and pulled out a worn Baptist hymnal. Handing the book to a church member with a smile, the woman said: "I want you all to have this in return for the beautiful joy you've given me today."
Although the woman has not been back to the church since then, the hymnal she left behind is on display this Thanksgiving Day at Calvary. It is among the church's most treasured possessions, a contemporary symbol of the biblical widow's mite and a tribute to one who gave her most revered possession in thanks for a special moment of peace and beauty.