Armed with the tools of their mission -- rakes, brooms, garbage bags, shovels and white gloves -- a group of visiting teen-agers descended yesterday on Valley Green, a public housing project in Southeast. At first, their arrival was met with suspicion, said one participant.
But as the teen-agers and residents talked, the tension eased and many residents in the area picked up a rake and pitched in.
"We worked for an hour and a half, and then a group of guys from the project asked our boys if they wanted to play basketball," said organizer Dean Nelson. "And then it was one big basketball game. It was black folks and white folks, and it was like it didn't matter. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life."
Since Thursday, about 4,000 youths of the Nazarene faith have ventured into Washington's inner city, stopping at soup kitchens, housing projects, homeless shelters, halfway houses, drug rehabilitation centers, churches and empty corner lots. Before their three-day mission in the District ends today, they will have visited 32 places to lend a helping hand and do, according to one organizer, "what Jesus would do if He were here bodily."
Group members came to the Washington area for a conference to discuss their beliefs, build relationships and learn about helping others. Members of the small evangelical denomination are all part of the Nazarene Youth Congress and come from across the United States and Canada.
According to Gary Sivewright, director of Nazarene Youth International Ministries, the purpose of the congress, being held at the University of Maryland at College Park, is to help the teen-agers learn how they can make positive contributions in their communities.
"We want them to know what it's like to be a Christian in the inner city, when things don't come quite as easy, quite as comfortable. We're trying to get them to wake up to their needs in their own town," he said.
Curt Ashburn, director of Tri-Sector, a nonprofit organization that helps families and communities become self-sufficient in the District, organized the numerous city service projects through private sources and contacts with the city's special events task force.
Erin McFarland, 18, of Columbus, Ohio, said that a guest speaker told the youths, many of whom are from small towns with small churches, that they are "sleeping through a storm."
McFarland said she hopes that the group's experiences in the District will be a culture shock, a shock that will leave them with a burning desire to help others. "I hope that the worst they've got, they throw it in our face. We want to know that the world needs us," she said.