Millions of ordinary and extraordinary citizens held Hands Across America yesterday, a sudden community offering a symbolic helping hand -- and hoping to raise $50 million or more to bankroll a grass-roots assault on hunger and homelessness in America.

At 3 p.m. EDT, hands linked and voices were raised to "We Are the World" and "Hands Across America," pop anthems aimed at hunger, homelessness and hopelessness. It was America alive, performing self-consciously but with gusto. At the White House, President Reagan turned to a sheet with the theme song's lyrics as he and Nancy Reagan held the hands of children. The 15-minute event ended with "America the Beautiful."

From New York's Battery Park to the Queen Mary's dock in Long Beach, Calif., the chain stretched -- with some major gaps allowed for safety and others due to a lack of hands -- along a 4,125-mile route that wound through 16 states and the District of Columbia, through 550 cities and towns, across mountains, rivers, deserts and heartland.

More than 5 1/2 million people were needed to form the chain, and in heavily populated urban areas, the crowds were thick and good-natured, if not always well-organized. There was no way to tell how many people participated in the event, but the Associated Press put the total at 4,924,000 based on its count from local organizers.

In New Jersey, 80,000 people more than necessary completed the state's 88-mile chain, and New York City's line was nine deep in some places. Along the upper level of the George Washington Bridge, connecting New York and New Jersey, the line was four deep; motorists slowed to wave at the participants, while truck drivers leaned on their air horns.

In Indiana, 250,000 people of the 400,000 needed showed up, the wire services reported. Ohio turned out 902,000, about 80 percent of the number needed. In Kentucky, there were gaps in rural areas, although 65,000 people linked up, theoretically more than enough for the state's 52-mile route.

The California desert produced a few five-mile gaps. On some segments of the line, ropes, ribbons, hot air balloons, banners with the handprints of hospitalized children and animals were substitutes for people.

The beginning and end of the chain were closer to mass rallies than lines, reflecting the confusion of the last few days, when USA for Africa, Hands Across America's sponsoring organization, encouraged people to show up even if they had not registered and paid the $10 to $35 contribution collected from participants.

"This is just the beginning," chief organizer Ken Kragen said in New York. "When today is over, roll up your sleeves and go out to work in your community. We have to move from the big event to the person on the street."

First in line under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty at Battery Park was 6-year-old Amy Sherwood, a homeless child whose mother is an unemployed nursing home aide. The official line-enders were Bill Jones, 34, his wife Mary, 25, and their five children, residents of a family shelter for the homeless in Long Beach, Calif., and Ginger Ruiz, who lives with her ill husband in another Long Beach shelter.

"I think it's just incredible, and I hope this feeling carries on," Bill Jones said. "There is a real need. There are many families worse off than us. It's hard and it's tough."

In between were hundreds of celebrities, including former president Gerald R. Ford, entertainers Yoko Ono and Frank Sinatra, movie director Steven Spielberg and actresses Whoopi Goldberg and Cicely Tyson, who portrayed a homeless person last Monday in the television film about social activist Mitch Snyder.

Weddings took place along the line in Baltimore, New York, Phoenix and Memphis; elsewhere, family reunions and social meetings were shifted to Hands Across America.

In Philadelphia, 30 members of United America Indians of Delaware surrounded the Liberty Bell in full costume. In Cincinnati, baseball player Dave Parker and other Reds held hands with hundreds of Little Leaguers before their game with the Pittsburgh Pirates, while the official line cut through the grandstand.

In Los Angeles, girls in bikinis and roller skates stood in line. In Chicago, clerks in a Michigan Avenue store gave candy to people standing in line. At the California-Arizona border, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) held hands with actress Bo Derek.

Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton joined 1,300 of his friends on a mile he had purchased in Champaign, Ill. The first mile in Hands Across America, at Battery Park, was bought by rock star Prince. Sponsors and corporations accounted for almost 2,000 miles of the chain.

Clear, sunny weather was in order along most of the route, though there was rain in the Midwest and flood watches across north Texas.

In Arizona, temperatures soared to 96 degrees and refrigerated trucks were stationed along the line to aid sunstroke victims.

The event was expected to raise more than $50 million, but it will be some time before a final tally is available. "It may take as long as most of the summer," said Marty Rogol, executive director of USA for Africa.Long Beach, Calif.

Near the western end of Hands Across America, on the wharf where the Queen Mary is berthed, an enormous box of free sandwiches was adorned with a sign: "This food has been provided by the St. Joseph Center for the Homeless."

The box was in the press room.

Outside, at 12:01 p.m., a crowd four lines deep linked hands and swayed to the tune of "We Are the World," the international anthem against hunger.

"I love it!" said Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, one of three elected local officials on hand for Hands. "It's exciting. A lot of movie stars here. Raquel Welch is here."

The gathering, only an hour's drive south of Beverly Hills, looked in places like "Night of a Thousand Stars" or an Oscar ceremony. There was Shari Belafonte-Harper, Dudley Moore and Whoopi Goldberg.

Actor Peter Strauss slipped out of line, a child in his arms and a camera in his hands, to join the shoving pack of professional photographers. Donna Mills, who plays nasty Abby Ewing in "Knot's Landing" and Gordon Thompson, evil Adam Carrington on "Dynasty," slipped out of character and tried to do good. Ben Vereen said that when the line began to sway, "My heart leaped with joy."

Many in line said they had paid nothing to join. During the morning, Los Angeles radio stations urged people to turn out, announcing that no fee would required to "join the fun." But there were at least eight reminders of the purpose behind the fun.

Bill and Mary Jones, their five children and Ginger Ruiz, residents of Long Beach shelters for the homeless, were supposed to anchor the line at its westernmost point. But at least four people brought up the rear during the 15-minute event, none of them the Joneses or Ruiz. Participants kept adding themselves to the end until they merged with the news media corps. -- Kathy Macdonald Sanders, Ariz.

Patricia Whitehorse needed 1,320 people to fill the quiet desert stretch from Arizona Milepost 339 to Milepost 340 on Interstate 40. She got 109, and she was delighted.

"Hey, you guys, c'mon!" she cried, giggling with the joy of a sunny day as they tried to stretch their line farther with red-and-white rope. There wasn't enough rope to make up the difference, and no one had appeared to fill the mile west of them.

But Whitehorse, a Navajo community developer who had been appointed "mile coordinator" less than 36 hours earlier, only laughed. "I'm surprised this many showed up," she said.

East of Sanders, a few brave clumps of people gathered at mile markers, singing cheerfully and waving flags in defiance of a desert about to win another round in its centuries-old battle against human ambition.

When noon came -- the appointed hour in the West -- the hazy sun in a white-blue sky revealed only dry brush along most of the route here. John Yellowhorse, justice of the peace in Sanders, had arranged space for 4,000 campers at his Fort Yellowhorse tourist stop at the Arizona-New Mexico border. About a dozen showed up.

"I'll have some people chasing me for a while," said Yellowhorse, lighting another cigarette as he alluded to $20,000 in unpaid bills for the project. "But I'll just hide out somewhere."

At the Best Western Chieftain Motel, where manager Dee Stublefield had fretted for weeks at the prospect of having the restaurant and restrooms overrun, 10 specially ordered Portojohns stood empty. Two hours before the event, the restaurant was less than half full.

But for some, there was pride in small numbers. Jane Sparks, a freckled 12-year-old, persuaded her mother to take the family on the 3 1/2-hour drive from Tuba City to Milepost 339. She was one of the few to have a computerized assignment from state headquarters in Phoenix.

Tim and Linda Bartkoski stopped on the spur of the moment with their three daughters en route from Missouri to Phoenix. Tim Bartkoski, a dairy-plant worker, stretched out his arms in the soft warm air and grinned at Whitehorse's little group: "This is the best unifying force we have had in America since the Revolution." -- Jay Mathews Tucumcari, N.M.

"It's almost like getting married," says Dana Hendrickson, all nerves with two hours to wait. "You spend all that time planning and planning and then after 15 minutes, it's all over."

Hendrickson, coordinator for 17 miles of eastern New Mexico, punctuates the air with her fist. "It can, it will, it's gonna work," she says. "If it doesn't, my heart will break, pure and simple. This project means so much to me . . . . I've never been hungry, and hopefully my babies never will be either.

Legend has it that this town of 6,800 was named in disappointment, when a broken-hearted Indian maiden named Kari killed herself after the death of her lover, Tocum, and her grieving father died muttering, "Tocum-Kari."

With six minutes to go, things look bad.

Hendrickson runs back and forth along the line, herding people into every space. Tucumcari City Manager Hugh Riley holds one end of a strip of fabric, sent by a New Hampshire school, with children's hands and names painted on it. He leans forward and peers at the gaps down the line.

"It looks like we won't make it," he says wistfully. "That's okay. At least we tried."

But his skepticism is premature. As the clock ticks down, Hendrickson runs down I-40 handing out pieces of red-and-white rope to bridge gaps. "Turn on your car radios so we can hear the songs," she hollers.

Hendrickson's mother is running in the distance with the end of a last piece of rope about 300 yards long. She reaches the end, and Hendrickson screams, "We made it!"

At 1:10 p.m., the local radio station announces that the chain is complete.

Scooping up her 4-year-old daughter, Ryan, Hendrickson is crying and yelling in the direction of her mother, who cups her ear with her hand against the whipping wind:

"I love you, Mom!"

In line, hand-holders fold each other in their arms. No hearts broken in Tucumcari this day. -- Gail Randall Dallas

The first hand that reached across Main Street might have been the withered left hand of Louis Brown, an unemployed drifter from Tennessee. It was 8:30 a.m., and downtown Dallas was virtually empty, except for homeless people wandering the streets alone or in pairs, searching the gutters and trash bins for food and aluminum cans.

Brown was at the corner of Main and St. Paul when he found a used pack of cigarettes, slightly crushed, on the sidewalk near a construction site where the new headquarters of M Bank is rising.

Hands Across America? Brown had heard of it, he said, and he thought it was a rip-off. "The thing is phony," he said. "They gonna give any money to a black guy like me? Where's the money gonna go? Where's the money always go?"

But others among the homeless had nothing negative to say about Hands Across America for the simple reason that they'd never heard of it. Of 10 tenants interviewed at the Dallas Life Foundation's homeless shelter downtown, none knew about it.

Hands Across Big D seemed above all a celebration of self. By the time the line stretched down Main Street, past the gleaming bank towers and department stores, past the infamous grassy knoll and down the hill toward the Triple Underpass, the still-haunting site of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, the sidewalks were jammed with middle-class Texans in search of a good time.

Celebrities helped. Dallas is known as a city that loves glitter, and the stars at the hand-holding included two famous Tonys -- Bennett, the singer, and Dorsett, the running back. All day long, Bennett was asked by radio disk jockeys whether he brought his heart to Dallas. No, he kept saying, growing more agitated each time. He left it in San Francisco.

But in this city, there were heart-rending scenes on every block of the route: old black carpenters holding hands with young white suburban girls; Hispanic families singing "America the Beautiful," in tune with a boogie box held by a dapper young man in a three-piece suit; doctors and nurses holding a long banner of hands drawn by young hospital patients who could not be there. Good will was everywhere, even if the event came off rather clumsily.

When the clock struck 2, people held hands, but for long stretches no one seemed to know when to sing, or what to sing, and thousands of the celebrants hurriedly let go and left without singing at all. -- David Maraniss Chicago

It was a lovely day to hold hands in the park.

Thousands of Chicagoans did, on a cool spring day filled with festive sights and sounds, but the affair seemed to end almost before it began.

Hands Across America was a holiday in sprawling Lincoln Park on the Lake Michigan shorefront. Among green lawns, bike paths and playing fields were tumblers, Scout troops, cheerleaders, balloons, ice cream vendors jingling their handlebar bells, television camera crews, helicopters and even a blimp gliding quietly above.

From nearby picnic tables, the aroma of barbecuing ribs, chicken and hamburgers wafted gently under the noses of the hand-holders, adding savory touches to a scene already rich in flavor.

Although there were plenty of people in the park, monitors and guides soon discovered gaps as the line began to take shape. "There's a huge gap to the south," they announced through cupped hands. "Please give way to the left."

As in a giant game of crack-the-whip, thousands obediently linked hands and in overlapping waves, hastened south. As the first strains of "America the Beautiful" rose from the crowd in ragged choruses, the line had doubled back on itself several times, with hundreds singing back and forth to each other.

And then, just as the line straightened itself and some of the biggest gaps filled in comfortably, the 15 minutes were over.

Applause and laughter rose into the afternoon.

"Just like Halley's comet," said one North Side resident. "It was gone before it got here." -- Kevin Klose Washington, D.C.

For 18 minutes, the man with the world's most celebrated home joined the nation in singing about those without one.

Wearing slacks and a knit shirt, President Reagan walked with his wife, Nancy, onto a platform at their front door and stood, a little stiffly, beside children hand-picked for the honor.

Many of those who joined them in line were White House staff members and their families: chef Henry Haller, who had been boning a leg of lamb for a luncheon Tuesday; Johnny Muffler, chief electrician, and accountant Janet Bowen.

"Ask me how I contribute to curing hunger," a white-jacketed and white-toqued Haller told a reporter. "I use the leftovers."

As booming stereo speakers blasted event organizer Ken Kragen's welcoming speech, broadcast from New York, Reagan stood silently, staring into three tiers of camera equipment, photographers and reporters. Kragen praised John and Robert Kennedy for their inspiration, and his words drowned out protesters in Lafayette Park who chanted against Reagan's policies toward the poor.

Among those sharing the platform with the president were White House press secretary James Brady, wounded in the attempt on Reagan's life in 1981; Charlie Waterhouse, 13, son of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant assigned to the White House helicopter detail, and Mark Bernier, 5, of Niagara Falls, whose mother was visiting her high-school friend, a secretary to White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan.

"It was fun, but my hands were sweaty," Bernier said. To Waterhouse, the president "seemed a lot bigger than TV and a lot older."

As the music of "We Are the World" began, only the children -- reared on videos and radio -- knew the words as well as the president's oldest daughter, Maureen. She took her role as block leader seriously, swaying to the music and trying to inject a little bounce into a lineup of mostly ill-at-ease participants.

Maureen laughed at her father's unsuccessful attempts to follow the words of the charity rock anthems, but he appeared to be the only one who knew both verses of "America the Beautiful." -- Margaret Engel New York

All around him, along the highway at the edge of Harlem, thousands of people held hands, laughed and sang, but Frank Baraff was clearly embarrassed.

His 6-year-old son tugged on one arm, his wife, Charlene, pulled the other. "I'm a '60s activist," said Baraff, a political consultant who says he once marched at Selma, Ala., and now works for such clients as Bella Abzug. "I guess this is something of a protest, but anything sponsored by Coca-Cola, Citibank and Ronald Reagan has to be viewed with skepticism."

Nonetheless, at his wife's insistence ("It's absolutely incredible to have a chain across the the U.S.!" she gushed. "It's fantastic!") Baraff had driven -- "reluctantly," he muttered -- from his home in Westchester.

As the moment arrived, the Baraffs found themselves between four generations of the Barnes family from the South Bronx and two young Chinese Americans from Brooklyn. They joined hands in a long, unbroken line under the tenements of Upper Harlem, halfway between a sewage plant and the George Washington Bridge.

Slowly, not quite audibly, Frank Baraff began to join in the chorus of "We Are the World." He knew the words.

As the singing swelled in the sunshine, Lilian Barnes, 63, dressed in a turquoise running suit, clutched Baraff's hand and belted out the song in deep-throated tones befitting a gospel chorister from the First Union Baptist Church.

Barnes, a supervisor of emotionally disturbed children, had left church early, she said, to come with her daughter, son-in-law, granddaughter and 4-year-old great grandson. "I see people in the street with no place to live," she said. "People who are hungry. I hope this helps."

Each member of her family contributed $10. "In the past I wouldn't have done much to help out," said Barnes' daughter, Verlene Lane, a telephone company clerk. "But I just felt I had to be here."

Her daughter, Cheryl Lane, an unemployed actress, said, "In New York, it's nice to see us united because we have a reputation of being callous and distant."

When everyone joined hands and sang (some teen-agers could not resist contributing their rendition of "Born in the U.S.A.," while a group not far away swayed to "America the Beautiful"), Cheryl said, "I felt, I don't know what you'd call it -- full, emotionally charged, kinda touching."

As the line broke up and the crowds headed for the Harlem streets, 45 teen-agers from Weston, Conn., all with spanking clean "Hands Across America" T-shirts, crossed a weed-choked, glass-strewn highway divider. Among them was John Alden, a wiry 14-year-old with a mouthful of braces -- and a 12th-generation descendant of the pilgrim. As for Hands Across America, he said:

"It was awesome."

-- Margot Hornblower