No message is more basic to the Christian faith than a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven."
Simply stated, the verse means that believers should boldly demonstrate their God-given abilities--singing, sculpting, computing, playing sports--and use them "for the glory of God," said the Rev. Henry Y. White, pastor of Brown Memorial AME Church in Northeast Washington.
Individuals should not hide their lights, or talents, "under a bushel," the pastor said, quoting an accompanying verse from Matthew, but place them "on a candlestick [to] giveth light unto all that are in the house." Congregations, he said, should not hide their lights within the church walls.
"Let's not keep the Holy Ghost locked up in here," White told a crowd of about 200 worshipers at Brown Memorial on Sunday. "Go out and bless Him!"
But making the message stick in people's minds and result in action is not an easy matter, White said in an interview. "You can't just preach a sermon [on the subject] and expect it to take root. The word has to come alive."
Bringing the word alive is the goal of a yearlong campaign at Brown Memorial called "Let Your Light Shine in 1999."
Every program and ministry of the church is emphasizing the theme, White said, including a basketball program that "serves as a hook for at-risk African American males"; a women's missionary society, which sends provisions to needy people across the Washington area and overseas; and Vacation Bible Study, a five-evening children's program that begins Monday.
Tomorrow at 5 p.m., a Let Your Light Shine reunion concert will feature past and current members of Brown Memorial's award-winning youth choir.
As part of the campaign, church members don T-shirts and buttons featuring the motto and logo produced by designer Gertie Loretta Hurley, the pastor's sister, who helped conceive the program.
Honoring people who exemplify a theme, particularly an ancient one, is a way of making the message fresh, White said. At a recent dinner, more than 40 senior members received Shining Bright Light certificates for decades of church work. And Sunday, Brown Memorial's four 1999 high school graduates were given college scholarships of $1,000 to $3,000.
Amounts were based on grade-point averages and participation in church activities and community service, including working in hospitals or libraries, said Eurah G. Collins, a former principal who headed a four-member selection committee.
The top scholarship went to Kendria Jackson, a graduate of Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, who plans to major in child psychology at the University of Maryland. The second-place winner is Iniko Johnson, a graduate of Banneker High School in the District who plans a double major in mathematics and theater at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Third-place winner Donald Ward Jr., a graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, will begin a program in aviation management at Hampton College in Hampton, Va., this fall. And Rassa Massey, also a Bishop McNamara graduate, will study nuclear medicine at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa.
Scholarship Day has been an annual event at Brown Memorial since 1987. The church has awarded more than $50,000 in scholarships and other financial assistance to its high school graduates, according to the scholarship committee chairman, Alexander W. Medley Sr. This year, as an "incentive" to other teenagers in the church to stay in school, White gave each of the four winners an additional $100 and a special certificate.
"I'm really touched," Ward said after the service. "It shows that it's good to be churched, to have a family who will say: 'Here's a young man who loves the Lord and loves his church family. We support all of his endeavors.' " Ward lives in New Carrollton, but his grandmother, a longtime member, lives near the church.
Jackson and Johnson were at a youth conference in Miami and were unable to attend Sunday's awards ceremony. Massey is working as a counselor at a camp for physically and mentally challenged youth in Kansas City, Mo., and she, too, was unavailable for an interview.
Mary Jackson, Kendria's mother, beamed when asked about her daughter's accomplishments. "She has worked so hard," said Jackson, an Oxon Hill resident and church member for 22 years. She said that Kendria was a volunteer for three summers in the pediatrics ward at Greater Southeast Community Hospital and hopes to become a pediatrician.
Sunday's service lasted nearly three hours and featured almost nonstop singing, praying and Scripture readings. The Rev. Glenn B. Dames Jr., an assistant pastor, preached about the lesson of Daniel in the lion's den and admonished the congregation--especially the teenagers and younger children--not to "sell out" to the lure of materialism or the manipulation of peer pressure.
"One thing God will not stand for is a sellout," he intoned. "One thing God will not stand for is disloyalty."
The pastor sat on the podium throughout the service, most of the time giving the pulpit over to readers and worship leaders--an array of young and old, male and female. Some were past scholarship recipients and now college graduates, such as Brian Leak, who received a degree from Towson State in December and is an assistant director of admissions at the college.
One practical gesture of light-giving, and public relations, came last month when the 116-year-old church hosted its first community cookout. Members wearing Let Your Light Shine T-shirts served hot dogs, hamburgers and barbecued chicken to about 150 people who live near the church at Constitution Avenue and 14th Street NE. The party ended with a fireworks display.
"It was a day of rejoicing and fellowship and having a good time," White said. "We wanted to let our light shine by being good neighbors. We want to shine on Capitol Hill not just as a black church but as a people of God."
The cookout also was an effort to curtail neighborhood criticism of four vacant town houses backing up to Brown Memorial. The church, about two-thirds of whose members have moved to Maryland, has owned the houses for more than 10 years and made several unsuccessful attempts to renovate them, even trying to get help from the District government, White said. Instead, the historic houses on Constitution Avenue deteriorated into eyesores and became havens for drug dealers.
In recent years, the church decided to renew its effort to renovate the houses and began a special building fund to raise the $500,000 or more needed for the project, White said. The first town house should be completed this summer at a cost of about $100,000, with a target date of 2000 to finish the others.
How the properties will be used has not been decided. White said the church might expand its meeting areas or use the buildings to house tutorial programs or other outreach ministries; one or more could be sold or rented.
Whatever the buildings' use, the renovations will "change the whole landscape of the community by removing that blight from Constitution Avenue," the pastor said. It's a perfect example of how the Let Your Light Shine message can move from the sanctuary into the streets.
"We have turned this theme into a rallying call" for the entire community, he said.
CAPTION: Past recipient Brian Leak reads Scripture during a service honoring winners of Brown Memorial AME Church scholarships.
CAPTION: Members of the congregation at Brown Memorial AME Church in Northeast Washington pray together, above, at a service dedicated to high school graduates. The church has awarded more than $50,000 in scholarship money to congregation students since 1987. At left, Felicia Roane cradles her daughter, Erica, during the service. She is flanked by Aaron Elder, left, and Andreana Allen.