Members of First Baptist Church on Randolph Street NW plan to climb aboard chartered buses every night this week and head for the Washington Convention Center to take part in the Billy Graham Crusade.
For months the church has been astir with crusade preparations. Volunteers have staffed committees on Singing, Ministry, Ushers, Youth, Women and Men.
"They've been praying for the success of the crusade for several months now," said the Rev. Frank Tucker, pastor of the black congregation, who serves on the areawide ministers committee for the crusade.
Not every black church is that deeply involved in the crusade, which opens today. But interviews with religious leaders suggest that the event has support in many black churches.
That represents a dramatic shift.
Twelve years ago, black Baptists were instrumental in scuttling a proposed Graham crusade here, not only because the promoters failed to include black clergy in the planning but also because of dismay over Graham's reticence on civil rights issues.
But, said Bishop Smallwood Williams, another Graham supporter, "A lot of things have changed. Billy Graham has grown in his ministry and his concept." And, Tucker added, "There isn't as much of a blatant racism now on both sides" as there was then.
Now, the Graham organization not only has blacks in key roles on its own staff, but it also has been careful to involve Washington area black leaders at every level in crusade plans.
In addition, Tucker said that early in the crusade planning, Graham met with black ministers here and "faced some of our questions and concerns candidly."
Those concerns, Tucker said, included Graham's "past inertia in regard to the civil rights movement . . . his failure to be enthusiastic about it."
Tucker said the black ministers also discussed "the impact of unemployment" and the "reduction of federal spending for social concerns" as issues "that need to be raised in places he has contacts."
"He indicated he would be supportive of some of these concerns," Tucker said.
Graham told a news conference last week that while he will shun partisan politics in his sermons here, he will "speak out on social and moral issues," including such questions as nuclear war and "how our society deals with the poor, the hungry and the homeless."
That is a far cry from the Billy Graham who a dozen years ago defended his refusal to take a stand on the Vietnam War because he was, he said, "a New Testament evangelist, not an Old Testament prophet."
Whatever his theological bent, Graham and his associates have fashioned a formula in 35 years of evangelizing that many religious leaders appear eager to embrace.
"We plan a year in advance, and as soon as we knew that he was coming, we incorporated the crusade into our entire programing and theme for the year," said the Rev. Neal Jones, pastor of Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church. "We have put everything I know to put into it."
Jones said that 400 to 500 members of his congregation were "directly" involved in some aspect of the crusade -- in committees, in the choir, as ushers, as counselors and in special prayer programs before, during and after the crusade itself.
Columbia Baptist has chartered six to eight buses a night to haul members to the Convention Center. And a follow-up rally featuring Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, a member of the church, has been planned for next month.
"We're really in on it," said Jones, who views the investment of time and money in the crusade as a rare opportunity for his congregation. "No man has ever caught the public eye like Billy Graham," said Jones.
"He's very simple. He's not a great speaker . . . . But he has the ear of everybody in the world . . . . Who else is there on the scene who is an evangelist but who has the grasp of social issues in a sane way?"
Studies of past crusades show that a large proportion of those who make "decisions for Christ" are already church members. Graham crusades have been criticized for preaching to the converted.
"It's like what revivals have become in most churches," said the Rev. Lawrence Jones, dean of Howard University Divinity School. "It's an attempt to revive the people that are already in there."
But for United Methodist Bishop Joseph Yeakel and others, this is not necessarily a bad thing. "The fact is that people in the churches need revival too . . . . We all need conversion."
The crusade plan has built in several tactics aimed at attracting those who do not belong to a church. Operation Andrew, which all 626 churches cooperating with the crusade are encouraged to endorse, asks participating church members "to make a list of five to seven unchurched persons that you will pray for, and try to discover ways in which you can establish relationship so you can invite them to the crusade," explained Tucker.
Prayer Triplets is similar: Groups of three pray together for three people who do not belong to a church and invite them to the crusade.
Graham crusades have traditionally been Protestant affairs. The Rev. John O'Conner, ecumenical officer of the Washington Roman Catholic archdiocese, said the Catholic Church is not participating but that if individual Catholics "want to go, that's fine . . . . If they feel that's going to help them, no one should stand in the way."
The crusade team has agreed to give the archdiocese names of Catholics who come forward and sign cards indicating they want to join a church, he said.
While most pastors hope the crusade will produce at least a few converts for their congregations, there are broader goals too. The year-long preparation for the event "has already been a unifying force in the Christian community, in terms of groups working together across ethnic and denominational lines," said Tucker.
"I'm hoping it will leave a community that's more sensitive to cooperative effort, in evangelism and social issues as well."