Back in the day, Yolanda Sampson was a Washington Redskins cheerleader and Miss Black World 1995.
Today, she’s a minister, and she’s often in the middle of an aisle at First Church of Christ (Holiness) in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast Washington, shouting, “Hallelujah!” As director of evangelism for the Pentecostal church, she also runs its prayer telephone hotline.
“There are people who are depressed, struggling with addictions, those who lost their jobs and others who want to be stronger in their walk with Jesus,” Sampson said.
And First Church is there to help. Pastor Ralph Martino, the church’s leader, asks parishioners and strangers alike, “How may I serve you?”
The 700-person congregation uses Twitter and YouTube to spread its message. But the church is unapologetically old-school. It embraces baptism by immersion, it does not reject speaking in tongues, and it occasionally hosts all-night prayer services and, recently, a foot-washing ceremony.
In a scene right out of the New Testament, Martino and parishioners slipped off their shoes one Sunday in November and prepared to dip their feet into pans of water. They took turns washing one another’s feet.
The ritual is a sign of humility and service, harking back to Jesus’s washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.
“The purpose behind the foot-washing service was to follow in the example of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Martino said as he began to wash the feet of some of his brothers in faith. “If he served others, then we must be willing to serve others as well.”
Seven nights a week, from midnight to 9 a.m., at least a dozen church members and staff members — “prayer warriors” all — take calls to the hotline. Martino often jumps in about 8 a.m.
At 4:59 a.m on a Tuesday in autumn, the voices of eight prayer warriors could be heard on the hotline, giving advice, quoting Scripture and offering impromptu prayers. One caller was looking for help to save his marriage. Moments later, a woman called in to pray for better health and for her sister to escape eviction.
“We thank you, oh God, that when we cry out that you answer us,” a woman working on the hotline said in prayer.
First Church was founded 91 years ago. The congregation is part of the Church of Christ (Holiness) U.S.A., which separated from the Church of God in Christ in 1920.
First Church reaches out at all hours — 50 people remained in the pews at 2 a.m. during a recent all-night service — and it encourages commitment from its members. In many congregations, weekly Bible study lasts about an hour; at First Church, it can extend for several hours.
“The objective is to make mature disciples, and we are committed to that first and foremost,” said Martino, who hosts a weekly radio show on Praise 104.1 FM that he uses to direct people to the seven-day-a-week prayer line.
“We are the ones who must be praying through midnight to counter the attacks of the enemy,” Martino said. “This is part of our strategy.”
Joyce Coffey, a former drug addict who is now a lay leader at First Church, said she is a testament to the power of prayer.
“I have been delivered from crack cocaine for 30 years,” said Coffey, a grocery clerk who lives in Kettering. “This church gets to the root of sin, and really that is the only way that you can really deal with sin.”
Vernon Johnson, 41, a Metrobus driver, attends First Church although his bus route is in the Tysons Corner area and he lives in Alexandria. “I come to this church because it is very family-oriented, and I believe that Pastor Martino is being used by Christ.”
Martino said he is fulfilling a mission.
“God wants to reach his people,” he said. “He wants to reach them through love. He wants to reach them through community. . . . We become his eyes, we become his hands and his feet, and we go forward.”