WASHINGTON — The Washington Hilton has hosted many presidents and political elites, but the sight of a baptismal pool and the sound of a cappella hymns filling the grand hotel’s ballroom may have been a first.
The Crusade for Christ, which every two years draws hundreds of volunteers and leads to dozens of baptisms in a different major city, kicked off in the nation’s capital about the same time as Hurricane Irene struck.
But even as many Washington-area religious groups canceled weekend services, the hurricane failed to derail the crusade.
When the storm passed through the area, about 600 people were singing “I am a hard-fighting soldier, on the battlefield” during the crusade’s opening banquet.
John Dansby, the evangelistic event’s chief of staff and minister for the Russell Road Church of Christ in Shreveport, La., smiled and told the gathering, “I was a meteorologist in the Air Force, and from the beginning, I wasn’t worried” about the weather.
For a week, the Hilton was transformed into a sanctuary filled with “foot soldiers” — church members from across the nation — in yellow and green shirts.
Each morning, they marched out of the hotel, singing as they boarded buses to knock doors in neighborhoods in Washington and neighboring Maryland and Virginia.
For minister Edward Maxwell and elder Bill Davis from the Suitland Road Church of Christ in Suitland, Md., bringing the crusade to the D.C. area fulfilled a 20-year dream.
“This was something to bring us all together,” Davis said, referring to area Christians.
While some see modern tools such as online social networking as better ways to spread the Gospel, church leaders involved with the crusade still believe in the effectiveness of door knocking.
“African-American members of the Church of Christ have placed a lot of emphasis on evangelism going back to the early 20th century,” said Edward Robinson, a Bible and church history professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas. These members “still cling to the face-to-face, door-to-door method. They believe in the human touch to demonstrate that you are concerned about your fellow man.”
By the end of the week, the participants had knocked on nearly 15,000 doors — including a crusade record of more than 5,000 doors in one day.
Daniel Harrison, minister of the Chatham Avenue Church of Christ in Chicago, has served as the crusade’s national director since the first crusade drew 3,000 people to a convention center in the Windy City in 1979.
“The crusade is not an organization,” Harrison said. “It is a living organism with feelings and emotions, and there is nothing like making contact with people.”
Knocking doors in Temple Hills, Md., Ella Murray, a 60-year-old home health aide from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., met Albert DeWitt. DeWitt, a Jamaican-born immigrant who used to play with reggae artist Bob Marley, told Murray he was a Rastafarian who believed in “baptism of fire.”
Still, Murray asked him, “Would you like a Bible study?”
Murray, a foot soldier since 1987, has traveled to crusades in Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles and elsewhere. During a break, she laughed with fellow Christians as they shared their door-knocking stories.
“They called the police on us. They said that it was a private neighborhood,” said Pattie Johnson, a court reporter from Irvington, N.J. She came to the crusade with her two sisters, two nieces and a great niece.
While the crusade is made up of primarily African-American congregations, Maxwell said predominantly black and white Churches of Christ in the Washington area came together to raise more than $200,000 for the event.
“It is not about race,” said Floyd Williamson, who is white and serves as minister of the Oxon Hill Church of Christ in Temple Hills. “It’s about coming together for the cause of Christ.”
In the evening Murray and other foot soldiers exchanged their T-shirts for dress clothes during the revival portion of the crusade at the Hilton ballroom.
One of the highlights of the event was the singing, from the Crusade Choir under the direction of Jerome Jones to spirited music directed by song leaders Darwin Mason of Nashville, Tenn., and Chris Turner from New Jersey.
Jack Evans, president of Southwestern Christian College in Terrell, Texas, offered fiery sermons each night that resulted in dozens of baptisms and prayer requests.
In an interview, Evans said that he was glad the crusade came to Washington.
“It is a unique opportunity for the church to come to the capital of the United States, within miles of the White House, to tell people in and around the White House about the right house,” Evans said, “and that is the church of Jesus Christ.”
Shaneca Tucker, 35, was one of the people baptized.
She answered the door when Breeyantae Wells, 15, and Donald Brice came to her door. Brice took off from his produce manager job at a local Safeway to be a part of his first crusade.
In addition to asking about her faith, the duo also asked if Tucker and her friend had any needs. After learning that their power was out because of the hurricane, the church members invited Tucker and her friend to the Suitland Road building for lunch and bags of groceries.
But she also left with the Word. During a Bible study at the building, Tucker opened up to Maxwell about her life.Maxwell responded by drawing a circle. “If Jesus is in your life, you are in this circle,” he told her. “If he is not, then you are outside. Where are you?”
After Evans’ sermon, Tucker still had the circle on her mind as she confessed her faith and accepted Jesus in baptism.
Brice, a member of the Suitland Road church, said Tucker’s baptism brought tears to his eyes.
“I was overwhelmed … to see that a lost soul had been saved,” he said.