One night during prayer services last year, the worshipers at A.P. Shaw United Methodist Church in Anacostia locked the doors to keep out the drug wars being waged outside. When the sanctuary doors were swung open, the pastor found the bodies of two young men who had been shot to death. The men had come to the church for safety.
Shaw United Methodist, partly because of the tragedy at its doorsteps, is one of 14 churches, "saving stations," mounting a holy war against drugs here.
The churches, backed by resources from the United Methodist denomination, are trying to reclaim the drug-worn streets of the nation's capital by developing programs that offer counseling and activities to thwart drug abuse.
This week, the 14 churches got help from a feisty preacher in San Francisco, whose ministry in the gritty Tenderloin district is credited by the mayor and other public officials there for having helped reduce drug use and crime.
The pastor, the Rev. Cecil Williams of the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, calls his effort "liberation theology for the inner city." And he is convinced it can work here.
"We're going to do it, watch, you just watch," said Williams, a keynote speaker this week at a symposium entitled "Redeeming the City." About 150 ministers, seminary students and lay people gathered at Wesley Theological Seminary to learn about successful models of urban ministry.
Williams has worked aggressively with the San Francisco housing authority, law enforcement, the public health agency and even the Boys' Club to combat social ills.
The pastor said his approach is to work "from the bottom up, to start with the marginals, the outcasts, the homeless, the hungry, the unemployed, the addicts, the drugged-out and the alcoholics."
Williams began pastoring in a church 26 years ago that was about to close because the mostly-white membership had left the neighborhood. He said he brought in a jazz band, took down the cross and the choir loft and began preaching.
"The church is not the building," Williams told them. "The church is the people. We began to organize, to march for issues in the community, for issues needing not only attention but serious change."
His racially diverse church is now packed with more 2,000 people on Sundays and has 22 thriving programs to empower the powerless.
In the Washington region, the 14 churches -- half in the District and half in Prince George's County -- are "going to utilize everything we can get our hands on to facilitate recovery" said Bishop Felton May, who was sent to the District last year from his regular posting in Harrisburg, Pa., to tackle the drug issue.
Shaw United Methodist is already a social oasis in Southeast Washington, serving three meals a day to the hungry, cutting hair and providing recovery programs for anybody who needs them.
But for Shaw and the other churches, the outreach in some ways has just begun. "They're not going to wait and see if anybody gives them permission," May said. "They're going to act until somebody tells them they can't act."