JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Declaring himself closer to God, former Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. walked out of prison and back into the public eye yesterday.
"I come out of prison better and not bitter," Mr. Barry told about 250 supporters who rode in a bus caravan from Washington to meet him at a motel parking lot here. "God does not require perfection of us, only progress."
Bible in hand, Mr. Barry was embraced as the returning prodigal son by the Rev. Willie Wilson, a Baptist preacher who organized the rally. Supporters waved "Welcome Home" signs and sang hymns.
Then, as in the biblical parable of the son who "was lost but now is found," everyone sat down to a banquet of celebration. Mr. Barry was feted in the dimly lighted ballroom of a $46-a-night motel set between a Burger King and a Dairy Queen on a Pennsylvania highway four hours from Washington.
The former three-term mayor, who served six months in federal prison for a misdemeanor conviction of cocaine possession, lookedas much preacher as politician.
Flanked by his 75-year-old mother, Mattie Cummings, and companion Cora Masters, Mr. Barry said he became aware in prison of a "spiritual power outage in my life." He said he had "re-established" his relationship with God and was "stronger internally" than ever.
Mr. Barry, 56, did not say he would run this year for District of Columbia City Council, but he showed a keen interest in politics in fielding reporters' questions.
"I have nothing set beyond the next couple of weeks. I'm going to take one step at a time," he said. "I'm going to start with me, making sure I'm strong and involved in what I want."
Mr. Barry lost a bid for an at-large City Council seat in November 1990, only 11 days after he was sentenced in the cocaine conviction. He got only 19 percent of the vote and ran third.
However, his supporters -- many still angry at what they regarded as the politically motivated FBI sting operation that resulted in his arrest in January 1990 -- said they were ready right now for a comeback.
"He is one of the greatest persons, one of the only people I know who can do something for us as poor blacks," said Florence Smith of Southeast Washington, who was celebrating her 54th birthday. Mr. Barry gave her a hug and kiss, and softly sang "Happy Birthday" to her at the $7.50-a-head buffet luncheon.
Oliver Johnson, 44, a computer consultant, said Mr. Barry's "debt is paid, and he deserves our support. . . . If Bill Clinton can run for president, I don't see too much Marion has done differently, except serve his time."
Sandy Allen, 48, of Southeast Washington said she regarded Mr. Barry's six months in prison as "positive. Now he has the experience of people who have been incarcerated."
But a suburban observer, Tom Buck of Rockville, Md., who came with a video camera to see Mr. Barry while visiting his sister here, said he feared the rally would embolden the former mayor.
"I'm afraid he is going to be misled and overwhelmed by a small group of supporters who would support him no matter what. With his ego, who knows?" he said.
The local Johnstown Tribune-Democrat greeted the Barry release with an editorial that said Mr. Barry was "not a hero" and no more "deserving of public acclaim than any other junkie."
The former mayor left the low-security Loretto, Pa., federal prison at5:30 a.m. yesterday. He was picked up by two security guards in a gray sedan, said Ronald L. Hamm, a prison spokesman.
As inmate No. 14856016, Mr. Barry worked as a 12-cent-an-hour dishwasher at Loretto, a converted Catholic seminary, and was a "very quiet, very orderly" inmate, Mr. Hamm said.
Mr. Barry was transferred to Loretto in January from the minimum-security federal prison camp at Petersburg, Va., after two inmates and their wives accused him of having oral sex with a female visitor in a prison visiting room just after Christmas. Mr. Barry denied the allegation.
The former mayor said yesterday that "prison for me was like a learning tree" and that he took part in a Christian fellowship at Loretto.
He criticized the federal prison's lack of black guards, instances of "outright blatant racism" by employees and what he called its failure to rehabilitate prisoners.
He contended that the government's drug policy exacerbates the problem by focusing on jailing street-level dealers, not high-level distributors.
Mr. Barry spoke to his supporters for nine minutes in bright sunshine and closed by reading a passage from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians. It speaks of "forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before."