Church stands up to two centuries of change Old Otterbein accepts neighbors with grace

August 29, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

In the beginning were the detonations. Which begat the backhoes and pile drivers. Which begat the joyful noise of the riveters. Which shook the pews, interrupted the sermon and boomed through the hymns. And the members of the Old Otterbein United Methodist Church saw that it was not good.

But they've seen worse.

That tends to be the case when your congregation has met for more than two centuries in the middle of a growing city, enduring not only bouts of noise and dust but bizarre events such as the confiscation of the church key by police in 1842. That was the result of a congregational feud that shut down the church for four years until the Maryland Court of Appeals finally declared a winner.

So, two years ago, when construction crews began digging just beyond the church doorstep in the 100 block of W. Conway St. to build a $150 million addition to the Baltimore Convention Center, members braced themselves to grin and bear it once again. Because by this time, aggravations that to a rural church would seem like a progression of biblical plagues have become merely another fact of urban life.

"I guess maybe it's mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter," mused Max Powers, a retired firefighter who was the church's co-pastor for seven years in the 1960s. The noise "may have interrupted some people's train of thought. It might even have interrupted their naps, who knows. But to me, this is just a part of the city's growing pains."

One Sunday, he said, the disruption even managed a certain harmony, when a thumping pile driver joined a hymn as if penned into the score by the original Methodist himself, John Wesley.

At moments when the pounding has moved to different rhythms, members have needed only to consult their hymnals, where a Wesley writing from 1761 advises: "Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength."

The more nettlesome complaint seems to be that convenient parking has all but vanished beneath the new tracts of steel and concrete, and when a steam pipe ruptured recently, the ground collapsed beneath yet another bloc of spaces.

But no other congregation can boast that its church has earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places, not only because it was built in 1785 but because it was the "mother church" of the one-time United Church in Christ denomination. Its very bricks are part of Baltimore maritime history, having once been used as ballast in the hulls of 18th-century ships.

Philip William Otterbein, the pastor at the time, ended up paying most of the $6,000 construction cost himself. Since then, the church has survived everything from a series of denominational rifts (including the aforementioned 1842 dispute, sparked by a scheming German bigamist, no less, according to church historian Bill Joynes), to the Great Baltimore Fire, which burned to within two blocks in 1904.

Along the way, one could always chart Baltimore's fortunes by the church's neighbors. Blue-collar days brought a brewery, a tire factory and tobacco warehouses. The warehouses occasionally rolled so many of their hogshead barrels of cured tobacco onto cobbled Conway Street that horse-drawn wagons barely had enough room to get by.

Urban blight brought a host of vacant, crumbling homes. Urban renaissance brought the rehabbers and the dollar-lot homesteaders. Then came Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Sheraton Hotel and, now, the new wing of the Convention Center.

Some of the newest neighbors have been among the noisiest, but the church has always managed not only to survive but to prosper.

When the stadium and its crowds came along, some members sniffed opportunity, and it smelled like roasted peanuts. Now each weekday or Saturday home game finds church vendors selling peanuts out front for a buck a bag. The proceeds have helped pay for a new paint job and the restoration of the church's 99-year-old pipe organ. There are also the intangible benefits to consider, such as the occasional glimpse of outfielder Brady Anderson scooting by on in-line skates.

After earlier troubles, construction crews have tried with some success to limit noise during church hours. They also have shored up the land around the church to help reinforce the foundation. The city helped to pay for a new air-conditioning system so the church could shut its windows against the noise and dust.

That has helped Pastor Millard Knowles be more tolerant when radio transmissions from the site have burst into the middle of his sermons over the church P.A. system, or when the sight of all those backhoes and heavy equipment has scared away couples who might otherwise hold their weddings there.

But to some commuters and baseball fans who regularly pass by, the recent encroachments seem almost perilous, as if the church were a lost lamb tethered uncomfortably to its shrinking plot of green.

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