Despite failing health, the Rev. Imagene Stewart, a D.C. institution, is still serving Thanksgiving dinner to countless homeless women, men and children after 40 years.
"I haven't stopped serving Thanksgiving dinner yet, and everybody's invited," she said. "You are all welcome to come by and share Thanksgiving dinner at the House of Imagene."
The House of Imagene shelter's 40th annual Thanksgiving on Capitol Hill with veterans and battered and homeless families "is a very exciting day," she said.
It will be held this year on Thanksgiving Day beginning at 11 a.m.
"After 40 years, I should keep going; God is good, I've been so sick, with my stroke, I can't remember like I once did, but I know God has been good," the 68-year-old Ms. Stewart said. " I don't even know why I'm still here ... but I'm still here."
Ms. Stewart, often called "Rev. Imagene," acknowledges that she is much weaker because of a major stroke she had last year. However, she is taking each year as she goes along, she said, and the many volunteers who help prepare and serve the dinner help her keep it all together.
"Donations went down this year, but it is my feeling that we have let down certain people as church folk," she said. "We could have and should have helped even more than what we are helping this year."
In the mid-1960s, Ms. Stewart was homeless and survived by living in Lincoln Park in the District. She eventually found a job at the Government Printing Office, but she never forgot the hardships she had faced as a homeless person and was inspired to open her own shelter. She managed to set aside time to organize volunteers and found boarder rooms to house 30 homeless people.
Ms. Stewart then gained the attention of the late D.C. Mayor Walter E. Washington with her plans. With a meager budget, she was able to purchase property for the House of Imagene Shelter and Women's Center in 1972. It is located at 1110 Sixth St. NE, Suite 4.
"My doors are always open, and we're here to help anyone who needs us," Ms. Stewart said.
In 1972, the same year the shelter opened, Ms. Stewart earned her associate's degree from the University of the District of Columbia.
Ms. Stewart was born on Jan. 23, 1942, in Dublin, Ga. She arrived in the District in 1963 to participate in the March on Washington for jobs and freedom. After the march, she became ill and never returned home to Georgia, she said.
The House of Imagene Shelter and Women's Center is the first D.C.-based shelter founded by a black woman. It comprises two satellite centers: a shelter for battered women and children and a shelter that provides temporary housing for homeless veterans and their families.
Ms. Stewart went on to become pastor of the Greater Pearly Gates Baptist Church. She also worked as a radio personality for WOL radio in the District. In 1992, she was honored with the prestigious Living the Dream Award for her service to battered women and the homeless. In 1993, Ms. Stewart served as the national chaplain for the American Legion Auxiliary and as the director of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
Ms. Stewart has received the Bridge Builder of D.C. award, presented by the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in 2001.
She said the House of Imagene served 1,500 people in 2008. "We will see how many come through this year, but we are prepared for 1,500 or more for this year. The people just keep coming, one after the other," Ms. Stewart said.
• Lyndia Grant is an author and freelance writer living in the District.