After 24 years of throwing what is probably the biggest Thanksgiving day bash in the metro area, the Rev. Imagene B. Stewart wasn't sure she had the strength to go on.
There are usually about 2,000 people--many of them homeless, some not--at the party, said Stewart, who runs the House of Imagene, a shelter in Washington for abused and homeless women and children.
"I've been sick, going through chemotherapy, and that kinda tires you out," said Stewart, 57, who has ovarian cancer.
Then, out of the blue came a call from the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners. The group, based in Silver Spring, just happened to be having its annual meeting in the downtown Renaissance Hotel the week before Thanksgiving. Members were wondering if the House of Imagene could use any volunteers that Wednesday.
"That call," Stewart said, "convinced me to go on with it. God called me to do this work, to be faithful, so I decided I can't stop now."
And so it is that today, Stewart will open her 25th annual Thanksgiving day party on the Northwest block outside her two shelters with a word of prayer, just before the dancing begins.
Ozzie Jenkins, executive director of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners, had no idea that her group had inspired Stewart to continue the tradition. Whenever the group holds a meeting, it seeks out a charity to help for a day.
Jenkins once had seen television news coverage of the House of Imagene bash and thought her group could be helpful because its meeting happened to take place so close to Thanksgiving.
"When we made our offer, she very graciously said, 'Yes, please come,' " Jenkins said. "She never complained, never mentioned she was sick."
In fact, Jenkins spent much of the day at the House of Imagene, along with 37 volunteers from her group, and left not knowing that Stewart was ill or that the offer of help had saved the bash.
"When we walked in, everything was ready for us," Jenkins said. "You'd have never been able to tell she had a personal problem."
The meeting planners brought boxes of new clothing and cleaned the house. Then they set to work washing, chopping and storing in freezers hundreds of pounds of celery, greens and other vegetables that will be used in today's meal.
As usual, Stewart has a permit to close the 200 block of P Street NW, outside one of the two homeless shelters she runs, and all are welcome. A volunteer disc jockey will play the sounds of Otis Redding, James Brown and what Stewart calls "that old bunch."
The guests will sit at card tables and boards over sawhorses for a big turkey dinner on the street, in the yard and other open spaces around the shelter. As of earlier this week, Stewart had collected 160 turkeys and was counting on God to send the rest.
With the prep work done, Stewart felt she could arrange whatever else needed doing. She mentions her illness in passing, with a dismissive air, as if it's not worth getting into.
"I have ovarian cancer. It's like in an advanced stage. Other than that, you go on, go on with the flow."
This party is about loving life and being grateful. "We have a free-for-all," said Stewart. "It's just a wonderful soul celebration. I look forward to it every year."
CAPTION: Volunteers, from left,Margo Laing, Debra DeBose and Irene Webster polish silverware at the House of Imagene to help prepare for the 25th annual bash.