Washington's Metropolitan Community Church held a historic groundbreaking ceremony yesterday, becoming the first gay organization in the United States, and maybe the world, to begin building a house of worship from the ground up.

"Never has anyone taken an empty lot and built a gay and lesbian institution from the ground," said Scott Minos, an employee of the Department of Energy, church member and public relations coordinator. "That's why we have such large participation from around the city."

But historic considerations followed practical ones. "It's not unusual to have people standing, sitting upstairs, crowded in the entryway and almost out the door at the 11 {o'clock} service," said the Rev. Candace Shultis, MCC's assistant minister, about the church's present building. "One thing about a church," Shultis added, "is that if you don't have a place for people to sit, people will go away."

Yesterday, the courtyard of the church at Fourth and M streets NW was full. Several hundred people attended a picnic and the groundbreaking ceremony.

The yard overflowed with people, with a rainbow of balloons, with vats of baked beans and potato salad, with hundreds of hot dogs, but most of all, with high spirits.

"There's more love, more feeling, more Christianity here than I have ever felt in any of the mainline churches," said Bob Hager, a real estate salesman who has belonged to MCC for eight years.

"I had some pretty stereotyped notions in my mind. I thought it would be a bunch of gays and lesbians trying to play like Christians, but this church totally fulfills my needs as a Christian, in a very positive way," Hager said.

Metropolitan Community Church is part of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. MCC was founded nearly 19 years ago. In its early years, the church found space where it could, usually in other churches. Six years ago, the church bought the building on M Street NW, but rapidly outgrew it.

Last year, church members started a building fund. To date, they have raised $235,000, most of it from individual donations and tithing. Construction at the site on Fifth and Ridge streets NW, right around the corner from the present location, is not scheduled to begin until the church raises $65,000 more. The finished structure is expected to cost $900,000 and include a sanctuary, offices and meeting rooms.

Most of the people at the ceremony yesterday wore turquoise and white T-shirts that read "Metropolitan Community Church Groundbreaking Ceremony." Many were from Washington, but there were also church members from all over the United States, including the Rev. Troy Perry, who founded the denomination in California 22 years ago. There are congregations in 16 countries and in every state except Wyoming and New Hampshire.

For Mike Barnard, a member of an MCC congregation in Norfolk for four years before he moved to Washington a year ago, it was an especially wonderful day.

"I come from a fundamentalist background," said Barnard, a salesman. "It was a long struggle for me to reconcile my sexuality and my spirituality. The first time I stepped into an MCC church, my spirit sort of sighed. I knew I had found a safe place, a home."