President Clinton Continues Racial-Healing Initiative With Speech Before Black Congregation at Washington D.C. ChurchBy SONYA ROSS

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton told District of Columbia residents Sunday he's dedicated to making the nation's beleaguered capital ``a shining city on the hill for all America.''

``I don't believe our national government has always been the best neighbor to the city of Washington,'' Clinton admitted, but he added: ``We are committed to becoming a better neighbor.''

Mayor Marion Barry said he appreciated Clinton's comments.

``I think it was good he came to point out that the present government has not been good neighbors,'' Barry said during a later, unrelated White House reception. ``I hope that (Senate Majority Leader) Trent Lott and (House Speaker) Newt Gingrich hear that.''

Crumbling conditions in the District were the focus of Clinton's visit to Metropolitan Baptist Church, in the heart of the District's black community. But the subtext clearly was to show Clinton himself crossing the invisible barriers that make religious worship one of America's most segregated practices.

The visit came as Clinton's yearlong campaign for racial reconciliation shifted into a higher gear after last week's town hall meeting in Akron, Ohio. That gathering was followed by several others convened by Clinton aides _ one of which has drawn fire for having a black-only audience.

The closed, invitation-only event last week at a Dallas museum, presided over by black Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, was organized by Dallas Municipal Court Judge Vonceil Hill, a friend of Slater's.

Sylvia Mathews, deputy chief of staff overseeing the race effort, said the Dallas meeting was an ``isolated incident'' that would not be repeated. Slater's spokesman Bill Schulz said the reaction was an encouraging sign that people of all races are eager to talk.

``Clearly this was a missed opportunity,'' Schulz said.

Hill told the Dallas Morning News that having an all-black audience did not hurt the discussion. ``I don't believe the president has indicated that every dialogue must start in the same way,'' she said.

But Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative author who took part in the Akron dialogue, told ``Fox News Sunday'' that the exclusion of whites was unfair. She urged Clinton to add divergent views to his advisory board on race.

``I want to hear the White House say it is racist,'' Thernstrom said. ``You can make more of an effort so we don't have a monologue here.''

Although Sunday's event also played to a largely black audience, aides hoped images of Clinton reading letters from black children, singing along with soulful hymns and entering the debate over the District's future would nudge the national conversation beyond the feel-good platitudes that came out of Akron.

Metropolitan's pastor, the Rev. Dr. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., took it there, saying blacks must not use the legacy of slavery as an excuse for perpetuating wretched conditions in Washington.

``There comes a moment in my life when I must declare liberation from my past,'' Hicks said. ``We will not lay all of our problems at the feet of racism. Nor will we wink at mismanagement and incompetence that we have heaped upon ourselves.''

Clinton did not promise new policies or tax relief for the District. He reiterated his support for local home rule and pledged to pay closer attention to the problems of those who live in the White House's shadow.

``One of the gifts I hope I and our administration can leave for the 21st century is a national capital that is a shining city on the hill for all America,'' he said.

Currently, District government is overseen by a congressionally appointed control board, and Congress has final say over the District's budget. Many citizens believe the controls exist because Washington's population is mostly black, and the city's voters have placed mostly blacks among their leaders.

``Washington has gotten a lot of lectures from people in national politics about being more responsible,'' Clinton said. ``But in the essence of our Constitution is the idea that responsibility requires freedom. I want Washington, D.C., to be able to run its own affairs.''

As Clinton spoke, Barry, and congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton nodded in agreement, as did poet Maya Angelou. The president left the church with Norton.

Clinton said he chose to attend Metropolitan, with a black membership, rather than his usual church, the racially diverse Foundry United Methodist, to encourage more Americans to worship at least once with people of different races or faiths. The two churches are only about 10 blocks apart.

``It is not enough to say we are all equal in the eyes of God,'' Clinton said. ``We are all also connected in the eyes of God.''