The cozy living room of the Sarah House women's shelter was decorated Friday night with balloons and a banner that read "Come Back Soon."

The occasion was a loving send-off for Earl and Bev Johnson, two Californians who gave one year of their lives without pay to help strangers in another city, designing and implementing drug treatment programs for the homeless who receive services at Luther Place Church, near Thomas Circle NW.

A dozen women the Johnsons had helped, the residents of the most visible program of Luther Place, were gathered to say thank you.

Women who live at Sarah House must stay six months, agree to remain drug free, either work or go to school, take life-skills classes and help raise money to offset costs.

The Johnsons added drug counseling to the services available.

"Without Sarah House and the grace of God, I know that I would not be {alive} today," said Barbara Reed, a resident in her mid-thirties who said she was an addict for 22 years. "I just got tired of my life in drugs. I came here and they helped me."

Earl Johnson, 59, is a retired Lutheran pastor and recovering alcoholic. He came to Washington several years ago to demonstrate with other clergy against the MX missile and met the Rev. John Steinbruck, pastor of Luther Place, when both were among protesters arrested and taken to the D.C. jail.

Johnson said Steinbruck told him that he wanted to offer drug counseling in his shelter programs.

Johnson said he decided then that one day he would come to Washington to help Steinbruck.

For the past six years, Johnson and his wife have volunteered at drug treatment programs near their home in San Leandro, Calif.

Earl Johnson received a master's degree in alcohol studies, then a doctorate in counseling from the University of California at Berkeley. But his experience with addiction turned out to be the most valuable.

"I probably would not have gotten very far with these people had I not had addiction problems myself -- or at least it would have taken a lot longer to break through," he said.

Last year, Johnson retired from the ministry; his wife, a San Francisco public health administrator, took a leave of absence.

They decided to give a year to Luther Place, live in a small apartment owned by the church, eat the same food as the shelter residents and begin counseling.

Friday, the Sarah House residents told them their year had made a difference.

"In the drug world, I had stopped trusting people," said Cheryl Barnes. "But Earl knows how to make us care about ourselves again . . . . It's an inner thing. He gave me my heart back."

"He let me know that {in recovery} it is okay to have lots of feelings of anger and pain," said Debbie McKnight. "He listened to me."

Steinbruck and Sarah House Director Cathy Jenny said the Johnsons' work has persuaded them to hire a drug counselor.

"Earl has helped us move toward an effective healing," Steinbruck said. "It's about swimming in the mainstream of life again."

At his send-off, Johnson told the women his reward was their progress toward independence.

"It has been a privilege for me to walk along the path to recovery with you," he said.