As the volunteers at the Potter’s House on Columbia Road NW rush to cook, clean, and otherwise prepare for their weekly Friday-night concert series, a homeless man comes in and begins browsing through the books available for sale at the ecumenical meeting place.
When co-manager Meade Jones-Hanna approaches, the man sets down the book he is thumbing through and glances at the door, but she has come only to ask him if he’d like to stay and hear some music. “Is there a donation required?” he asks her. “Nope. We charge for food from the kitchen, but you can just drink water and listen if you like,” she responds. The man is still skeptical—he looks at the huge duffel bag on his shoulder that contains all of his belongings. “Is my bag welcome, too?” he asks. “Of course,” says Jones-Hanna. “We all have our bags here. Why shouldn’t yours be allowed, too?”
A desire to bring in a diverse group of people is one of the reasons that the Potter’s House decided to resume its concert series, which was forced into a hiatus in 1996, after the number of organizational volunteers dropped.
“We want to bring the rich and the poor together—both suburbia and the homeless,” says Jones-Hanna. “That’s one of the reasons we enjoy Friday nights here. We do a lunchtime program, and there is still a mix, but we’ve had many of the same people. Friday nights is a great way to see new faces again.”
The Potter’s House is a longtime project of Washington’s Church of the Saviour. The coffeehouse/bookstore opened in 1960 with the goal of providing a casual setting for spiritual discussion. “Instead of a church, where you usually see the same people, we opened our doors to the world,” says Jones-Hanna.
In its new incarnation, the Friday-night series raises money for both the night’s featured act and a selected nonprofit organization that co-hosts the evening. “It was mostly a folk-music venue before,” says Jones-Hanna. “We didn’t have the fundraising element—we just passed a hat for the musicians.
“Now, the money is split 50-50 between the charity and the musicians,” she continues. “When we have more than one musical act, the split is 25-25-50. The most we’ve made was $700, when 11th Hour performed. The band got $350—a respectable price, especially for a beginning band.”
The concerts also solve the volunteer problem that initially shut the program down: Each nonprofit is required to provide a staff member or two to give a brief presentation about his or her organization and pitch in by waiting tables.
Tonight, singer Dulce Ruiz and jazz gospel group Fuzion are performing to benefit the Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place (CCH/FP). Everyone is required to multitask to keep things running smoothly: A representative from CCH/FP serves guests and passes out literature, Jones-Hanna runs the cash register and MCs—and even Ruiz stops singing and offers a bandage when the cook cuts herself in the kitchen.
But even with volunteers doing double and often triple duty, there is always more work to do than there are hands. “We thought about doing it just once a month, but you need to build momentum, so we just jumped into every Friday,” says Jones-Hanna.
The Potter’s House has its Friday-night concerts scheduled through November 2002, and it is exploring ways to further enhance the program. “We want to bring back drama—we used to do plays before we closed in 1996, and we’d like to bring them back,” says Jones-Hanna. “This is the perfect environment for it.”
Right now, however, adding yet another element to the Friday-night series is the last thing on anyone’s mind. The volunteers run around filling drink glasses and doling out platters of black beans and rice, while Ruiz belts out “Guantanamera” with such force that people on the street stop and peer inside, trying to figure out the source of the sound.
Despite the hectic pace, even those who are volunteering are having fun—dancing and clapping their hands to the music as they work. “Nothing is pressured or formal here,” says Jones-Hanna between chores. “The ambience is always welcoming—anyone can come and have a great night out.” —Sarah Godfrey