The visitors arrived in a caravan of cars, but instead of heading for the Mall or the White House, they went to the drug- and prostitute-infested area of 14th and N streets NW. And instead of staying at a hotel, the group slept in the nearby Luther Place Memorial Church, along with the homeless people they had come to help.

To be sure, they wanted to visit the monuments, having driven for three hours from Ephrata, Pa. But these were no ordinary tourists, and they had come to work as much as they had come to see the sights.

Hauling plants and mulch, lawnmowers and scrub brushes, medicine and blankets, the group of 41, including 26 children and young adults, made their annual return to Washington this weekend to serve the homeless: feed them, clothe them and help make their housing cleaner and safer.

Unlike some local groups, which are more about talk than action, these people from Pennsylvania Dutch country have demonstrated year after year that they mean business: Members of the group have "adopted" poor children, taken them into their homes until the destitute parents could get back on their feet.

And unlike some government-financed homeless shelters, where residents report that they have been attacked and abused by staffers, the Lutherans are motivated by religious beliefs that put a premium on patience, compassion and caring -- not the alleged use of baseball bats.

During the cleanup activities yesterday, members of the church saw a drunkard pick up a jug of concentrated floor wax stripper and walk with it, trying to twist off the cap in an apparent effort to take a drink. When Fred Thomas, a church member and farm equipment plant engineer, tried to take the fluid away from the man, the drunkard held up his fists and tried to provoke a fight.

"I'm just trying to help you, my friend," Thomas told the man gently. "One swig of this stuff and you're dead." The man double-checked the label of the poisonous material, then returned the jug with an embarrassed smile.

It is depressing to think what might have happened had this occurred at a government-run shelter.

In contrast to the $3.7 million federal grant that the D.C. Coalition for the Homless had received to run -- or, as some have alleged, mismanage -- shelters around the city, these efforts by the Lutheran Church are not costing taxpayers anything.

Not only that, but the fact that people who had been homeless and psychotic a few years ago were now helping to operate the shelters and were no longer receiving public assistance showed that the church-sponsored work was paying off.

In less than 24 hours after they had arrived, the area around Luther Place Memorial was blossoming with newly planted pansies, azaleas, marigolds and rhododendrons. The walls, floors and ovens in a homeless shelter for women, located in the church basement, had been cleaned. Blankets, medicines and handicrafts had been delivered to those in need.

The volunteers then moved to the Bethany Women's Center, located across the street from the church, and gave it a thorough cleaning, then headed to another church-run shelter at 12th and T streets NW where they began laying carpet that had been donated by "neighbors" from hundreds of miles away.

The Pennsylvania connection is just one of many that Luther Place Memorial, headed by the Rev. John Steinbruck, draws upon for support in its effort to serve the needy of this community.

But when the church came up with an idea in 1982 for a model homeless shelter, D.C. officials ignored it. Because church members were more concerned with continuing their work than, say, staging a hunger strike, their plans for a shelter died on the drawing board.

Yet it is obvious that, when it comes to helping the homeless, only people with their hearts in the right place can do the job.

Perhaps the D.C. government will wake up one day and realize this, and join forces with them. Until then, the city can just be thankful that such people exist.