At Unity African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Severn, the visiting choir arrives on cassette tape, the pews are brown folding chairs and the sanctuary bears a striking resemblance to a school cafeteria.
But with few of the trappings of an established church, the Rev. Myrtle Bowen and her small flock are determined to make a go of it.
Bowen and a congregation of one brought Unity from its Crofton home of one year to Van Bokkelen Elementary School on Reece Road in September.
Nearly three months and two church-sponsored block parties later, the membership stands at 22, including seven who joined Sunday. "We are pioneering," Bowen said recently. "It's still small, but it's growing."
Though small, the church has a big vision -- to reach the nearby communities where poverty and crime are prevalent. Bowen also hopes to attract military personnel, but, by design, the church meets within walking distance of Meade Village, Orchard at Severn, Warfield and Arwell Court.
"We felt there was a need for spirituality to come in and address the issues," Bowen said. "They are looking to have a new outlook, a new opportunity. There are people there who are hard-working. There are people there who are concerned about their children."
And so far, children are the heart of Unity's ministry. Of the 22 members, 14 are children, and children make up the weekly Bible study, held at the school at 6: 30 p.m. each Wednesday.
The influx of youngsters was unexpected, but not unwelcome, for Bowen, 35. The first-time pastor and architectural engineer for the Army said she has adapted her sermons to appeal to children and adults -- all part of the challenge of starting a church practically from scratch.
Bowen, a Fort Washington resident, earned her master's of divinity degree from Howard University in May 1995 and was appointed pastor of Unity this past May at the AME Zion Church Philadelphia and Baltimore Annual Conference.
Unity's membership at its former location on Carver Road in Crofton, where the church rented space in the school system's staff development center, dropped from 35 members to one after the previous pastor left. Vanessa Brown, a church trustee, is the only member who made the move to Severn with Bowen.
Bowen was a whirlwind of activity at a recent Sunday service. In addition to preaching, she led most of the singing, prayer and responsive readings, set up folding chairs for late-comers and kept the children sitting in the front row in line.
Afterward, she hugged the new members and all the visitors.
"Reverend Bowen is special," said Brown, 42, as she helped clean up after the service. "She has a God-driven vision, and I think that she'll be good for the community."
Dennis and Lynn Butler of Stillmeadows like the pastor's focus on young people.
"They have to learn ethics somewhere, and where better a place than the church?" said Lynn Butler, 35, a patient-service representative with a home health company.
The Butlers and their daughter Nicole, 7, became members of Unity on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. They said they were looking for a church after the couple left the Army and moved back to the county from Texas. After Nicole attended a Unity Bible study one Wednesday, they decided to give the church a try.
"This is one of the best ministries I've seen since coming back to the area," said Dennis Butler, 35, a chemist. "It's more dedicated to the community and kids."
Fellow new member Glenda Gathers hopes to see more parents follow their children to church.
"A lot of people are really talking about, 'We need to get the children in church,' " said Gathers, 54, a resident of Stillmeadows and activities director with Pioneers in Action, a nonprofit neighborhood organization. "And I say, 'Well, you need to come, too.' They are trying to start something over here. It'll go away if you don't come to it."
Gathers' granddaughter Colleen Davis, 9, is doing her part to help the church grow by bringing friends like Nicole to Bible studies and Sunday services.
"I like doing it because they can meet people, and they can learn about God more, and you can make a lot of friends," Colleen said.
While ministering to a growing congregation, Bowen also is trying to raise money that would allow Unity to buy a small building owned by a Korean Seventh-day Adventist congregation across the street from the school, next to Orchard at Severn.
"The congregation wants to own land in the community. That's important," she said.
To meet that need and others, Bowen is looking to the national denomination, community organizations and area corporations for donations of money or supplies to the fledgling church.
The Western District Police Station already lent a hand by providing transportation for the congregation to visit John Wesley AME Zion Church in Baltimore last Sunday after the regular 11 a.m. service at Van Bokkelen.
And the church and Pioneers in Action will have a candlelight prayer vigil for the Pioneer Drive area, meeting at 7: 30 p.m.
Thursday at the shops at the corner of Reece Road and Pioneer Drive.
With the daunting tasks ahead, Bowen said she stays prayerful.
"We've been claiming Reece Road as Miracle Road," she said. "We're not setting any limits on what we believe God will do on Reece Road. We are stepping out on faith and believing in faith."
Pub Date: 12/03/96