Bishop Smallwood E. Williams today celebrates the golden jubilee of the Bible Way Church, which he founded 50 years ago at age 19 with $5. a deep voice and the belief that at least a little bit of Heaven can be enjoyed right here on Earth.
With patience and pragmatics, cunning and common sense, a congregation and money and, he says, the help of God, Williams has moved from preaching on the corner of Seventh and G Streets NW to chief of a worldwide missionary effort that includes over 300 churches 100,000 members internationally, a federally funded apartment complex and a school for teaching preachers.
He had been warned before coming to Washington in 1927 that the city was "a preacher's graveyard and a mission wreckshop," and, indeed, starting a Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in what was then a Baptist stronghold was no easy task.
With a fireplug for a pulpit and curbstone for an altar. Bishop Williams -- a shy youth from Lynchburg, Va., who stuttered so badly that children laughed when he rose to make his Easter speeches -- began preaching. His powerful voice thundered through the streets, striking like lightning at the souls of poor black people recently up from the South in search of a life they found unattainable.
"My message," the bishop said during a recent interview was the same as now. You got to live by faith not luck. Poor people talk about bad luck. It's really no faith -- and bad money management."
The fastest way to empty your pocketbook . . . I say the fastest way is still fast women and slow horses.
"Confidence in themselves was the message," he said, "and that would come from God. I told them that their ship was sure to come in. It was a message of inspiration. I told them not to worry about while segregationists because their arms were too short to box with God."
Asking that his congregation make monetary sacrifices in a massive effort to construct a religious conglomerate, the financially shrewd Williams nickeled, dimed and dollared the Bible Way into the Bible Way Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ World Wide Inc. -- which now has an estimated $10 million in real estate apartments and schools in the United States, Africa and the Caribbean.
"I felt it was time for us to grow," Williams said of his work to make Bible Way an international effort, which began in the late 1930s. "Our fight is different now than it was many years ago. What is needed is a piece of the economic pie."
"We are a faith operation. We've never been subsidized by wealthy parishioners." Williams said, "As people began to see what their collective efforts could do the seeds of prosperity began to spread. People gave to the church and what the church contributed to them made them feel worthwhile.
Williams said his congregation is made up of people from all walks of life well-to-do professionals as well as welfare recipients and retirees. Many live in Washington's middle and lower middle Northeast section and have spent years working to attain the $15, 000 or to a year they now earn.
"The Bible Way Church is a place where no stranger need feel strangely, that's what I always say," said Williams. "Whether you have money or not, you still need God."
The Bible Way jubilee has drawn thousands of churchgoers to 2 week long convention being held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the Bible Way Church, which located at 1130 New Jersey Ave. NW.
Matronly women dressed in white the church elders in billowing pants held up by suspenders and smartly dressed members of the church youth corps mingle outside Bible Way and around the hotel's lobby.
Many have strong deeply naked ties to the church and within the church nearly all have found tasks.
There is the Helping Hand Club, the Willing Workers Club, the True Bive Club, the Senior Missionary Club, the Social Missionaries, the Brotherhood and New Members Club among others.
It is a total life experience," said Sister Ida Mae Wright a senior missionary from Pittsville Va "I guess the church is my whole life because without it I wouldn't have anything meaningful to live for," the 56-year-old woman said.
Using his considerable influence among Bible Way's 5,000 members in the Washington area. Williams takes an active role in electoral politics often endorsing or blasting candidates from the pulpit. In a city where the direction a politician takes is often shaped to a large extent by the moral interpretation of the action. Bishop Williams has held unsurpassed prestige among political leaders.
Bishop Williams' outspokenness at the pulpit on political matters endeared him to many, though it caused dissension.
The late City Councilman and civil rights activist Julius Hobson Sr. irritated Williams perhaps as much as any man has and the converse was just as likely so.
During an interview, when it was learned that Hobson had cancer and only a few months to live. Hobson criticized Williams as ineffective and only interested in money.
"I'll never understand why Julius said those things about me." Williams said. "He just made me his whipping boy even on his dying bed. He was a Marxist -- an athiest, and we had our disagreements on tactics. But I don't know why he said I hadn't made a contribution to the civil rights. When he wanted to put glue on utility bills to foul up the company's billing system. I opposed that . . . and the troubles began."
Almost invariably, though solicited words about Bishop Williams are filled with praise.
"Under Williams, the Bible Way Church has done three things that other ministers look at with great admiration," said Ernest Gibson of the Washington Council of Churches. "The first is a miraculous job of church development. Starting on a corner by himself and developing the present congregation is nothing short of fantastic. His interest in the community political process has been very open and decisive and third, his work in the area of housing has been tremendous."
When urban renewal in Washington threatened to displace many of Bible Way's members, Williams announced in 1955 that the church had a responsibility to find decent housing for them. He then formed the Golden Rule Apartments Inc. The corporation built a housing complex for low and moderate-income residents at 901 New Jersey Ave. NW, just a few blocks away from the church.
The $3.3 million complex was subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 1973, Bible Way opened the Golden Center, a grocery store at 1st and K Streets NW, also near the church. The store is now closed. Williams said because of a low profit margin and high overhead costs.
At the Bible Way convention this week however, church elders are discussing other financial investments including construction of a junior college and other schools and the sending of missionaries abroad.
"We call these things the Golden Rule," Williams said, "because it is our firm belief that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Believing also that churches everywhere were not following the philosophy of reciprocity. Williams became active in local politics. "Too often the churches would not speak out against the blatant evils of racism and injustice. They did not get involved in the fight to change things," he said.
Williams served as president of the Washington chapter of the NAACP chairman of the Washington Democratic Central Committee on the board of directors of the Washington Home Rule Committee and has been affiliated with numerous other organizations.
He has traveled to Europe, Africa, the Near East and Caribbean and prayed for peace in the Red Square in Moscow.He has formed missions in West Africa, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Yesterday he led a parade of more than a thousand marches from his church to the Hyatt Regency to mark the 50th anniversary.
The celebration will end today at Constitution Hall with a sermon by Rev. Martin Luther King Sr and undoubtably numerous tributes to Williams.
"I think back on how much has changed," he said in the interview last week. Then, he shakes his head. "Still, the American dream has not been realized for many. I don't feel that we've made it yet but we are on the way."
"I have a feeling . . . you know the feeling. When you're trying to convince someone of something you just know to be the truth," he raises his arms an dtilts his head to one side.
"Know the truth, for the truth shall set you free. I'm free and I feels it, you feel it. I believe in what feels it you felt it. I believe in what I do and I enjoy it and if anything makes me effective it's that. The material I work with isn't bad either," he smiled.