WASHINGTON — APPALLED by the spread of drug violence, the Rev. Ernest Gibson led 100 fellow Christians on a march to a crime-ridden housing complex in Northeast Washington. Mr. Gibson, a Baptist preacher, and his army of Christian soldiers did not know what to expect in the dangerous neighborhood. But what they got was a surprise: hearty applause. Welcoming them to the complex were a group of Muslims, who were also there to battle the drug scourge.
When Gibson's group returned with the Muslims two days later, children began to emerge from the complex's apartments. Then adults ventured out. A policeman later told Gibson that with the Christians and Muslims at the housing project, it was the first day in a year that many residents felt safe to come outside.
In this embattled capital, religious groups are struggling against an unprecedented wave of drug-related violence. Clergymen march into open-air drug markets to disrupt them at least once a week. Churches launch programs to help young people threatened by crack cocaine. Prayer-meetings continue around the clock.
Religious leaders say it will take a ``moral reawakening'' to save this city from a spiral of drugs, murder, and corruption that has shocked Congress and the nation.
Clergymen are mustering prayers, hymns, protests, and social programs to fight back. Yet so far, progress is scant.
The Rev. James Robinson, pastor of Ward Memorial AME Church, admits that the churches ``have not begun to do what we need to do.''
Religious leaders say the root of the drug crisis is fear - particularly, fear of the future. Destroying the power of drugs will require destroying the fear, they say.
Across this city, more than 60 drug-related murders have already scarred the city this year. Many residents, too frightened to leave their homes, stay off the streets and out of public parks.
``It's immoral for people to allow themselves to become prisoners in their own communities by drawing curtains and locking doors and keeping their children at home,'' says the Rev. Mr. Gibson, executive director of the Council of Churches of Greater Washington.
But the Rev. Reginald Blaxton, special assistant to the mayor for religious affairs, says churches give people hope. ``[Church-sponsored] rallies serve a purpose in a community hard hit by drugs and violence. They give people a sense of control over their lives.''
Some religious leaders say the capital's greatest need is a moral rebirth.
Dr. A.Knighton Stanley, pastor of People's Congregational Church, says in recent years many congregations focused on social programs, rather than moral uplift. ``Churches in Washington, for a time ... forgot the added ingredient, the essential ingredient - taking a moral stand.''
Churches especially must emphasize the moral development of individuals, Dr. Stanley says.
``While we were energetic with social services, we did not do enough of the other. We accepted too many government grants which ruled out what we do best: being faithful ... to our particular calling ... a strong moral position.''
The drug crisis hits hardest at Washington's black population, and some leaders, like Mayor Marion Barry, say the churches here could offer critical help.
``The religious people need to get out and do some marching,'' the mayor says.
The Rev. Mr. Robinson says the churches must bring about a ``restoration of real values. We are guilty of putting emphasis on the wrong things. Materialism. A building boom in our churches.''
It's time for church leaders to ``go back to the role of the prophets,'' Robinson says. ``When they saw something wrong, they counseled with the king. ... We need to be a voice in the wilderness. We need to say [to our children], there are alternatives. To emphasize supreme values.''
A. James Reichley, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the drug crisis gives churches an extraordinary challenge.
``Frankly, some churches in recent years have tended to stay away from the kind of moral suasion they could bring to bear. They've played that down in favor of social action,'' says Mr. Reichley, author of ``Religion in American Public Life.''
``There has been some feeling among some of the churches that being identified with traditional moral values has made the role of the churches seem out of date. ... Some mainline [Protestant] churches and Catholic priests felt they would lose contact [with their members] if they pushed too hard on personal morality,'' he says.
Reichley observes that black, urban churches - ringed by drug traffickers - may find it difficult to reach the right audience. Many blacks who most need help do not attend churches. CLERGYMEN respond that they hope to contact nonmembers in the black community with marches and outdoor prayer meetings.
White churches are also being confronted by drugs. But their response is sometimes uncertain.
David Roosen, director of the Center for Social and Religious Research at Hartford (Conn.) Seminary, says mainline Protestant churches are being pulled by conflicting forces.
Recent scandals on Wall Street and in Washington are forcing middle-class, white churches to grapple with questions of morals and ethics. But many churches submerge the challenge of drugs and alcohol abuse, seeing it as a problem for ``those other folk,'' Dr. Roosen says.
Yet mainline Protestants also feel the impact of the religious right, he adds. As a result, there is now greater concern about sin, like drug abuse and drinking, and about personal piety.
At the same time, mainline Protestantism ``has lost a sense of its public voice.'' The loudest calls now come from conservative Protestants and from liberal Roman Catholic bishops, Roosen says. ``So even if they really wanted to take a stand on drugs, I think there is less confidence and credibility attached'' to what they say.
These countervailing trends make some Protestant churches appear hesitant in the face of a growing national crisis.
In poor, urban neighborhoods, the Rev. Dr. Stanley says, the first threat that must be addressed is fear.
Drug users in the black community are fearful people, Stanley says. They are ``frightened to death'' by the future, he says. They see the 21st century coming, with all its economic and educational challenges, and they are not ready for it.
Young people are ``tripping into the future, synthetically, with drugs,'' he says, while ``old people using drugs are trying to keep from going there at all.''
How can the church deal with that fear?
People need a greater sense of their self-worth, Stanley says. They need a stronger moral foundation. And they need to get rid of false beliefs.
``I think the church is equipped to do that,'' Stanley says.