For Bishop Felton E. May, taking on the drug crisis has not meant riding into Southeast Washington to save it, then riding quickly out again.
Instead, it has meant grasping for something much more elusive: what he calls the "teachable moment," when "the issue is clearly defined; there is a readiness on the part of people to engage it," he said.
The moment is at hand for May, who is midway through a yearlong sojourn in the District and Prince George's County as part of a United Methodist Church effort to confront drug abuse and violence.
For the first time, the church has sent a bishop from his regular posting -- Harrisburg, Pa. -- into another area to focus on a problem. May is working with 14 United Methodist churches to set up long-term programs to provide counseling and activities to thwart drug abuse.
His days have been jammed since he officially began in January with coordinating and seeking resources. Although May, 55, is heading the effort, he sees his role as "catalytic servant," one who helps get the ball rolling and then steps back to let others take charge.
The centerpiece of the year begins June 25, when the churches open their summer tent ministries.
Large tents will be set up near the churches and will be open as "saving stations" 24 hours a day. The stations will offer Bible schools, street camps, counseling, shelter and food. The project, which will run through late August, is being supported by donations and volunteers.
The idea behind the tents is "to build solidarity in terms of life and death with folks where they are," May said.
May, who is living with his family in Anacostia for the year, said he does not foresee problems with safety. "These people walk the streets every day of their lives. I see no reason we cannot" join them, he said.
The tents will be open to all enmeshed in drugs and violence, including dealers. "There was talk about bringing relief to people and pushing out the dealers, but they are God's people as well. Some are caught and want a way out."
The drug crisis had disturbed May before he came to Washington. The Rev. Sarah S. Miller works with May as a Methodist district superintendent in Binghamton, N.Y. She recalled that after May counseled people in other cities on urban problems, he returned "shaken to the point of great emotional pain at what he saw. . . . It had been gnawing at his craw before Washington."
Although this area has been labeled a drug capital, May said its problems are not unique. Among the factors common to cities in crisis are racism, joblessness, homelessness and poor health and education, he said. "Those entities cause stress that causes individuals . . . to seek relief."
He remembers growing up during the Depression; his family was "one-pot poor," but the poverty was not so clearly defined as it is now. "The quality of life of our family was such that we didn't carry the scars of poverty. It's that kind of family life that I covet for everyone."
And May remembers a recent shopping trip that brought home the pressures some youths face. When he saw the high price of some of the clothing, "it dawned on me that millions feel less than human because they walk into stores and can't buy what's in there," he said.
When a youth feels pushed to keep up with expensive clothing, but can't afford it, May said, "along comes a way to get what he needs," and the youth gets trapped in the drug culture.
To fight that downward spiral, the faith community must confront a "double and triple standard," May said. "We say everyone has the opportunity to achieve . . . but that's not really true. Whether it's because of a planned level of unemployment, or the way we cast education or health care systems, some people fall through the cracks."
He urges others to expand their notion of how to respond. A lawyer recently sought help from May after four of her clients had been killed within 18 months. "I thought, 'There must be other attorneys with the same feelings,' " May said. "What would happen if they caucused?"
The question is "how do we respond in light of our vocations," May said. "Attorneys, doctors, all feel put upon; they are individually overwhelmed. Their caseloads are tremendous. But when they link up . . . . "
May began the year with the idea of linkage. Members of the 14 churches gathered for consultations, and all ideas were made part of the record. Two mini-revivals and training sessions on drug abuse followed.
Disappointments have included uncertainty over whether the tent ministries will be able to send youths to summer programs at black universities.
To recharge his energy and spirit, May said he depends on prayer and reflection. And he said he "relies heavily on the prayers of others."
"Your energy is heightened when you see people at work, doubly so when you see those who were once addicted," he said.
Others who work with him talk of his energy. "He has been very active and encouraging and supportive. He's eager to do things," said the Rev. Roland J.R. Timity, pastor of Ryland-Epworth United Methodist Church at Branch Avenue and S Street SE.
Miller called him a "seed-planter," one who helps others nurture a vision.
"He is vigorous and energetic, and it's not only his own -- he instills energy and commitment in others," she said. "He challenges us."