The choir leader's voice brought the crowd--drowsy after a large, home-cooked lunch--to attention. He begged them to get loud, to shout if they love the Lord.
"I want to hear somebody praise the Lord," he demanded of the folks gathered outside the Anacostia Museum yesterday for the 17th annual Senior Summerfest. "God got you up front, and we got your back!"
Then the music started, gospel classics that bridged generations, followed by a soulful rendition of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," so bluesy that feet tapped and heads bobbed on instinct.
Grandparents accompanied their grandchildren to a stage to do the Macarena, while others remained under shade trees or large tents, playing cards and listening to jazz at the Senior Citizens Counseling and Delivery Service's most popular summer event.
"This is a chance for all the people in Southeast to just get together and commune with one another," said Josephine Wharton, 78, as she waited on a plateful of chicken, collard greens, corn on the cob and baked beans. "It's right here in our neighborhood. This is home."
Organizers gave a prize to the oldest person with a June birthday. The winner was obscured by the crowd, but a tiny voice could be heard speaking into a microphone. "I was born in 1912," the winner said. If she said anything else, the words were lost in the din of applause and hoots that followed her announcement. "Praise Jesus," people muttered, along with, "I hope I make it that long."
Health care booths were set up at the edge of the celebration. Seniors dropped by to have their blood pressure checked or to learn about the healing power of magnets. Fliers urged seniors to sign up for day trips to Western Maryland for a play, to an outlet mall for shopping or to a casino for gambling. Event-goers liked the magnet therapy, but seemed a little wary of the Noni juice, "Medical Miracle of the South Seas." As far as medical miracles go, the crisp red slices of watermelon served as dessert seemed to work just fine.
"There's a lot of seniors who stay home in their apartments looking at TV and never going anywhere," lamented Harry Holland, 72, president of the Senior Advisory Committee that helps plan the event. "After working all your life, you should get out and enjoy yourself."
A clown, wearing floppy shoes and a painted-on, perpetual grin, ran through the crowd, dodging walking canes and making people of all ages laugh. When the event was winding down, after the door prizes and the reading of the mayor's proclamation, a jazz band took the stage and a young woman belted out "My Funny Valentine." A stately couple with soft, salt-and-pepper hair took to the grass in front of the stage, twirling and dancing and ignoring both the heat and onlookers' gazes.
For Concha Johnson, the day that took five months of planning was almost over. It's been a hard year for parts of Southeast Washington, she said. The local Safeway closed, a nearby hospital is in financial trouble, and at least two housing complexes have shut down. While familiar places in the community crumble, Senior Summerfest is supposed to a stabilizing day, she said.
"This is about recognizing seniors' accomplishments," said Johnson, executive director of the Senior Citizens Counseling and Delivery Service. "They've paid for their homes. They've paid for their cars. They raised their children and paid their taxes. Now they can have fun."
CAPTION: Laura Royal, 79, and Ivery Hunter, 71 dance at the 17th annual Senior Summerfest at the Anacostia Museum.