Eight-year-old Jesse Floyd walked slowly toward the line of waiting men, careful not to spill his precious cargo--a tray heaped with plates of red beans and rice, corn bread and salad.
With a smile, he eased the tray into the hands of an anxious man, then scurried through the crowd, back to the kitchen for another load.
"I want to help them," Jesse said, explaining his decision to forgo an evening of watching "Cosby" on TV to volunteer in his church's program to feed the homeless.
Like others at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, Jesse has grown accustomed to helping others in need. The 5,000-member church at 2270 S. Harvard Blvd. in Southwest Los Angeles has been active in virtually every area of social work with its more than 25 task forces.
The city's oldest African-American congregation--and church home to such notables as Mayor Tom Bradley and talk show host Arsenio Hall--First A.M.E. has gained a reputation for being "more than just a church."
"First A.M.E. has an old and rich history in this community," said Danny J. Bakewell, executive director of the Brotherhood Crusade, a prominent community group. "It's always been a very activist church in terms of leading the way and giving direction to the community in the area of politics and social responsibility."
Recently the church has displayed that leadership in ways as varied as a funeral for a slain Muslim and a celebration for an African leader.
Two days after Nation of Islam member Oliver X. Beasley was killed Jan. 23 by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, more than 500 community leaders, activists and residents headed to First A.M.E. for a rally.
Two days after that, Beasley's funeral was held at the church, with Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan delivering an impassioned eulogy to the more than 2,000 mourners.
And when Los Angeles heard the news that Nelson R. Mandela would be released from prison, South African emigres and others involved in the anti-apartheid movement flocked to First A.M.E. and waited through the night for the first televised glimpse of Mandela's walk toward freedom.
"This is symbolic of what this church means to this community," said state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who has often visited the church. "It's been a meeting place, it's been a forum, it's been a Mecca.
"The activities that take place at First Church are indicative of the temperature of the community," Watson added. "When you watch what's happening there, you can pretty much size up where our community is . . . what our concerns are."
Addressing those concerns is one of the primary goals of the church.
"Every member joins the church to go beyond the church," said the Rev. Cecil L. (Chip) Murray, who has pastored First A.M.E. for 13 years.
Murray says he has patterned his brand of church leadership on the black church of the past.
"The black church by its very nature must be a freedom house," he said, referring to the days when churches helped transport slaves to freedom and provided education when the doors of white schools were closed.
Today's church must be equally purposeful, Murray said, filling in the gaps in a world where "blacks have a low priority in the eyes of whites."
"The only source left for the disenfranchised, the disinherited, the disillusioned, is the black church," he said. "A useless black church is demonic. We cannot afford the luxuries of a useless freedom house."
While many other churches offer effective outreach programs, community leaders say First A.M.E. is distinguished by the depth and comprehensiveness of its efforts.
"Rev. Murray tends to be on the cutting edge of new, creative and innovative ideas that others tend to stand back and wait for," Bakewell said.
City Councilman Robert Farrell, whose district houses the church, said: "You will find First A.M.E. people wherever there is any kind of civic activity going on in the African-American community. It has that depth of participation by its pastors, officers and its members."
Perhaps the church's best-known pastor was Bishop H. H. Brookins. City officials recently concluded a conflict-of-interest investigation involving Brookins' dual role as landlord and head of a Southwest Los Angeles poverty program that received government rent subsidies.
The city is asking for repayment of $48,259 in rent that was paid to Brookins since 1981. Officials say Bishop owned the building but listed an A.M.E. church corporation as the owner. Brookins insists that he did nothing wrong.
A respected and prominent figure in the civil rights movement, Brookins served as pastor of First A.M.E. from 1959 to 1972 and as bishop of the A.M.E church's Los Angeles district from 1976 to 1984. He is credited with molding the political careers of many political leaders, including Mayor Bradley.
Bradley, who has been a member of First A.M.E. for 30 years, said the church "has always been in the forefront of the civil rights struggle. Its pastors have been among the most prominent leaders on . . . social action issues."
That legacy of political activism and influence has far outlived Brookins' tenure and has become a trademark of the church.
"If you're going to run for office, you have to go (to the churches)," Watson said. "And certainly First Church would be your first stop."
Politicians and the poor have benefited from the church's efforts.
Through the You Took Me In Program, young Jesse Floyd and other members hosted more than 100 homeless men and women who recently spent the night at the church.
One of the church's most publicized efforts is the Lock-In on Values program. For 24 hours, behind locked doors, youths ages 7 to 17 talk, listen to motivational speakers and view films--all designed to steer them away from drugs and gangs.
Church officials say the lock-ins have changed the lives of many young people, including hard-core gang members and others in need, like 16-year-old Dakston Brown.
Five years of living on the streets shattered the teen-ager's sense of self-worth.
"I felt inferior to everyone because I had lived on the streets," he said, describing himself as withdrawn and sullen.
An aunt who took Dakston and his brother in immediately got the boys involved in First A.M.E.'s youth camp and the lock-ins, where Dakston heard a presentation on self-esteem that changed his outlook on life.
"Since I joined the church . . . I see that I'm just like everybody else. The lock-ins are real good. They really do help," said the 11th-grader, who now plays football for Westchester High School, and plans to attend college.
Another clear concern of Murray's and the church are the problems facing African-American men, from a staggering unemployment rate to their disproportionate status as the victims of violent crime.
"The black church must be the salvation of black men and black boys," Murray explained.
Recently, the Richard Allen Men's Society--named for the founder of the A.M.E. Church--was formed as a support group and to "teach black men how to love one another," said its president, Mark Whitlock.
And the church has made a permanent impact on the city's housing problem by acquiring and renting out more than 100 housing units.
Bishop Vinton R. Anderson, who heads the Fifth Episcopal District, which includes Los Angeles, said First A.M.E.'s work is an example of what A.M.E churches across the nation are trying to accomplish.
Now the largest African-American Methodist denomination in the country, the origins of the A.M.E. church date back to 1787.
When Richard Allen and other members of St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia were literally pulled from their knees while attempting to pray in a white-only section, the group walked out, led by Allen, and later formed their own church.
Today's A.M.E. church still has close ties with the 9-million-member United Methodist Church, a descendant of the old Methodist Episcopal Church that Allen broke away from.
The First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles was founded by Biddy Mason, a former slave who started the church in her home in 1872.
While highly regarded both inside and outside the African-American community, some view First A.M.E. as a "buppie church," filled with young black urban professionals who some say are drawn to the church by its who's-who membership roster.
Members quickly dismiss this claim. All classes and ages attend First A.M.E. and the church, they say, is like a family.
"FAME is probably as down-home as they come," said member Roderick Solomon.
At Sunday morning services, members freely express feelings evoked by the lively sermons and the soulful, yet reverent voices of the choir. Some simply stand, their hands lifted in praise. Others dance, clap, shout or cry. A small band backs the choir.
Although the church is known for its community work, it is the spiritual nourishment, members say, that keeps their numbers growing.
Members of First A.M.E. take great pride in their African-American heritage. And their pride and concern extends also to those outside the Christian faith, Murray said.
Even before Beasley's death, the church had a longstanding relationship with the Nation of Islam.
"(Minister Farrakhan) has a message that needs to be heard," Murray said, "and it's the same message that the black church needs to be preaching: economic development, spiritual development. . . . Black man, take your rightful stand with your black woman by your side. Black children, stand tall."
Minister Wazir Muhammad of the local Nation of Islam mosque said the two religious groups stand united in their "struggle for liberation."
"Rev. Murray is always ready and willing to do whatever he can on our behalf, and we stand with him as he stands with us," Muhammad said.
Joseph Duff, president of the local NAACP chapter, attributed the historic gathering of Muslims and Christians after Beasley's death largely to the efforts of Murray.
"Rev. Murray had set the groundwork for that in his sermons and in his outreach way before the incident took place," Duff said.
The church also has reached beyond the black community, sponsoring meetings between African-Americans, Asians and Latinos and holding regular pulpit exchanges with Temple Isaiah.
Despite the problems plaguing many African-Americans, Murray feels the prospects for the future are bright.
"Sheer necessity will drive our people back to God," Murray said confidently. "The church is all we have and we must make it work."