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.