Church brings its flock home Reunion recalls humble beginning

April 26, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

Irene Johnson remembers when St. James Apostolic Faith Church was nothing but a tent pitched in a Freetown field.

The 82-year-old woman wasn't the only one this weekend to reminisce about the church's founding 31 years ago. But as the wife of the first minister, the late Bishop Gene Johnson, she had a special perspective.

"We had hard times, but we got through it," said Mrs. Johnson, looking out of her window at the original yellow clapboard sanctuary and the adjoining new 500-seat edifice on East Howard Road in Glen Burnie. "Church has meant everything to me and does to this day. Church is my first preference."

Dozens of former members returned over the weekend to visit the 250-member congregation for its 10th annual homecoming.

Friday night, the church held a celebratory concert with visiting choirs "till the power of the Lord came down," said the minister, the Rev. Leroy Lee Thomas.

Saturday, it staged a health fair for members and the community, with people stopping at tables for information and greeting one another in the church hall.

Saturday night, organizers held a preaching service and another concert. Yesterday, they held a worship service focused on the weekend's theme: "Prepare for an overflow".

Said Mr. Thomas, "We come together to remember that Jesus is still the answer to the problems of the world. The God we serve is still above all other gods."

The minister grew up in the church and became pastor two years ago.

Now he has a vision -- to make the community church a real force in the neighborhood.

"There's so much hatred in society today. People need a rebonding. The church wants to minister healing to all the pains that people go through," said Mr. Thomas.

One woman who returned for the weekend was Claudia Craig, one of the first two people to join the fledgling church. She was 9 then.

Now 40 and wife of the assistant pastor at Gibbons United Methodist Church in Brandywine, Md., Mrs. Craig comes back to St. James as often as she can.

"I get to see all the people I enjoyed so much as a child," she said. "This place was the grounds for my salvation -- my roots are here."

Current members of the church also rejoiced to see old friends.

Said Alma Murray: "This is the first homecoming we've had that lasted a whole weekend. You get to see people you haven't seen for years. My daughter moved to Atlanta, Ga., and she's on the road trying to make it back in time for homecoming."

Jonathan Key, 42, said one purpose of the weekend was to welcome nonchurchgoing neighbors.

"We really try to reach the community, and we just want everybody to know they have a home here too," he said.

The congregation has a mix of older members and younger families, with about 70 children and a 40-member teen-aged youth group.

"I see the church as a tremendous force. That's why we're working on community activities -- because the church needs to take a stand in the community, to be a force and a direction for good," Mr. Thomas said.

One constant force for good has been Mrs. Johnson, whose church title is "overseer" but who is known to the church family as simply "Mother".

In the decades of the church's existence, the minister's wife worked as a nurse in a long-term care facility, and took in foster children and mentally handicapped youths and reared them. "I can't even name them all," she says.

The Johnsons also had four children of their own.

"I was a private duty nurse and did home nursing and was church caterer and built the church and was with my husband," says Mrs. Johnson.

Now, she can't work like she used to, "but I can do the teaching," she says. "The Lord is still blessing. When I look at the church on a weekend like this, I thank God when I see where the young families are going. They're doing a good job."

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