On Sunday nights, a fleet of shuttle buses streams through Washington area streets with a mission: picking up students from Howard University, Bowie State and the University of Maryland and taking them to a sanctuary in Prince George’s County.
If a student calls, a shuttle will be on its way. The same buses will later scour D.C. neighborhoods, searching for those in need of food or prayer.
One recent night, about 40 students helped themselves to a dinner of pasta, sweet tea and apple cobbler that came with a lesson for the young adults on respecting their parents. (Somehow, the admonition seems to go down easier when delivered by someone other than the actual parents.)
“Just because you are in college doesn’t mean that they stop being your parents,” the Rev. Matthew L. Whatley, the church’s executive minister, told them.
Whether ministering to students or trolling New York Avenue for people in need, the leaders and members of Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church are taking part in one of the largest outreach ministries in the Washington area.
“I see the church as a family, and everyone is part of the family at Reid Temple,” said the Rev. Lee P. Washington, the senior pastor, who has watched the flock grow from several hundred members to 15,000 since he arrived at Reid Temple 29 years ago.
This weekend, the church, which is based in the Prince George’s County town of Glenn Dale and has a second campus in Silver Spring, is celebrating its 47th anniversary.
The church could focus all of its outreach efforts on suburban Maryland. But Washington said he feels compelled to minister to people in impoverished District neighborhoods, such as Kenilworth in Northeast, where Temple Reid hosted an outdoor revival service this summer.
“We are going through a severe economic crisis impacting people in many ways — loss of jobs, home foreclosures,” Washington said. “The black church is the most powerful institution in the community, and therefore we have to offer services to people that they need to survive.”
The congregation moved about seven years ago from Lanham to a $28 million complex in Glenn Dale. The new complex has a huge sound stage for theatrical productions, concerts and other events that routinely feature nationally known artists and speakers, including Dallas megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes and television personality Star Jones.
“Whether in Prince George’s County or Silver Spring or in D.C., people come to Reid Temple because they have a sense of fulfillment,” Washington said. “God is not geographically bound. The church is not defined by just four walls. We take the church to the people, wherever they may be.”
In August, Reid Temple gave more than $100,000 in college scholarships, part of an ongoing program of financial support for students.
“We challenge the young people not just to settle for a high school education,” Washington said. “We push them. We invest in our young people, and we believe that investment will come back.”
In addition to its youth ministry, Reid Temple offers such services as a credit union and an HIV/AIDS ministry. The church also serves as a training ground for ministers in the AME church.
Despite wet and windy weather, several hundred people ventured out or Wednesday night’s midweek service, which highlighted Reid Temple’s youths and young adults. Washington reflected on the life of William McQuain, the 11-year-old Germantown boy whose body was found this week in a wooded area of Montgomery County.
“Young people today are at great risk,” Washington told the gathering.
Later, Bria Alston, 19, in white tights and a scarf, performed a liturgical dance that she said was inspired by her appreciation of her Reid Temple family.
“This church has given a lot to me,” said Alston, who is majoring in journalism at Howard Community College. “I received a scholarship. They are molding me into what God wants me to become.”
Laurence Crandon, 11, a saxophonist, played the hymn “Amazing Grace.” “It means a lot to get a chance to play in front of so many people, and I get to serenade the Lord,” he said.
At a time when many megachurch pastors have elaborate security details and expensive cars, Washington drives a Toyota Corolla and preaches at most funerals for church members. After church, he stands in front of the communion table to greet any member who wants to shake his hand.
“I come from a humbler background on the Eastern Shore,” he said. “Being cocky and uppity has no place. I don’t see Jesus being that way. I try to be as humble as I possibly can, because ultimately the glory goes to God.”