Every Thursday except today is Thanksgiving Day at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church on M Street NW. For that matter, so is every Friday.
For seven years, senior citizen members of the downtown church have been dishing out twice-a-week lunches of fresh roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce and homemade sweet potato pie to hundreds of hungry office workers.
The lunches have raised funds for needed building and community service projects for the congregation of this 120-year-old church, one of the oldest black churches in the District.
But church workers who tend the kitchens four full days a week to make it happen say they keep the prices low and the portions generous, because theirs is the Lord's work, a mission of service that is tradition here. During the slave days, this church was a station along the Underground Railroad.
"It's for the people that we really do it," said Samuel J. Warren, a church trustee and chef who thought up the idea. "The church could do without it."
Maybe so. But not Tony Simmons, 24, who comes all the way from his job on Capitol Hill for the $5 soul food smorgasboard at the red brick church every Thursday -- and every Friday.
"It reminds me of southern cooking, down-home food," he said, looking up from his overloaded plate.
Kathleen M. Murray, 29, a lawyer who lives alone, said it is often the only square meal she gets all week.
"I don't know how to cook the way they do," she sighed. Besides, "they have about six different vegetables there. I don't keep six vegetables in my refrigerator. In fact, all I have is a bottle of wine and some orange juice."
The line of customers starts forming about noon inside the church hall named for Frederick Douglass, whose funeral was held there in 1895.
Their choices include a traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings or a serving of meat loaf, roast beef, barbecued ribs, fried fish or baked chicken and two vegetables, served with cornbread or a roll, a scoop of bread dressing and a cup of sweetened iced tea.
Construction workers in hard hats dine family-style beside executives in double-breasted suits seated on folding chairs at long plastic-covered tables in the church hall. Regulars greet the church workers and each other with friendly smiles.
"You didn't come here yesterday. You think I didn't know," chided Clara Piper, ladling an extra spoon of thick gravy over a baked chicken breast and a scoop of dressing.
"They know me when I walk in here," said Melton Thomas, 55, as he sat down to a helping of fried fish, collard greens, corn bread and pinto beans doused liberally with hot sauce. "Tea out yet?" he asked workers scurrying to serve the first few customers.
"Not yet," one said.
"I'm going to have to start making it myself," Thomas said, pretending to be annoyed.
"Be careful now," the worker kidded back.
Warren suggested that they start serving meals in the hall in 1981 after he noticed that the kitchen was hardly used.
Originally, he and his corps of workers sold breakfasts of eggs, bacon, pancakes and grits but stopped after it became too much of a load. Regular customers and churchgoers kept stopping by to ask when the meals would start again. Eventually, workers relented and reopened the lunchtime meals a few months ago. Since then, the church has drawn an even larger following.
"We don't need to be doing this. We stopped a couple of times. My feet just wouldn't carry me," said Herbert Smith as he washed a bushel of fresh collard greens. "It's a great burden but when we see the people enjoy it, we get the reward that way."
Theirs is not the only such operation in town. Other churches such as Scripture Cathedral, at 810 O St. NW, sells dinners on Saturdays and Sundays, and Shiloh Baptist Church, at 1500 Ninth St. NW, has its own restaurant open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends.
"That kind of function has gone on in the black church for many years," said Rodney L. Young, executive director of the Greater Council of Churches. "The churches see this as a part of their total outreach ministry."
Workers estimate that the lunches net about $1,000 a month profit. Over the years, the proceeds have helped purchase a church van, make repairs to the church building and fund various goodwill projects.
"To some extent, even though it brings money to the church it is a service to the community because the cost of the lunch is so cheap,' said the Rev. William P. DeVeaux, Metropolitan's pastor. "No one could eat anywhere else downtown for so little money."
No one is turned away. Homeless people are given plates free of charge. Leftovers are donated to a small senior citizen's home in Northeast operated by Ruth Page, whose mother attends the church.
"Y'all have it smelling good in here," said a church member who poked his head in while the workers were wearily cleaning up.
"Had something," one worker responded.
"Well, it was smelling good and now it's feeling good," he countered, laughing.