Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church's planned expansion to Baltimore County is part of a fast-growing trend of black-church development in the county.
In the past five years, at least 10 predominantly black churches have opened or expanded along the Liberty Road corridor alone, church and government officials say. Thirteen years ago, there was one there.
There's been a proliferation of small churches locating in school gymnasiums, office buildings and strip malls, especially in Woodlawn and Randallstown, church and government officials say.
"Five years ago, I knew most of the black churches, but now there are so many churches you can't keep track of all of them," said Lenwood Johnson, a county planner.
Some pastors say the growth will serve as an organizing force for pushing for better schools, more black elected officials and the growth of black businesses.
Among the fastest-growing churches:
New Antioch Baptist Church, in the 5600 block of Old Court Road in Randallstown, plans to build across the street a 65,000-square-foot church with a 3,000-seat sanctuary and parking for 500 more cars. The church has bought 10 acres for the expansion.
The Rock Church, in a former deli in the 9000 block of Liberty Road in Randallstown, has purchased a building on six acres near Woodlawn for its new church. Plans call for seating for at least 600 -- triple its current membership.
Colonial Baptist moved to a renovated synagogue at 9411 Liberty Road in Randallstown two years ago. It has 1,200 members. Nearly 200 joined in the past eight months, and 1,600 people show up for two Sunday services.
Bethel AME wants to build a second, larger church and other buildings on a 37-acre tract in Owings Mills, but it would keep open its historic city site, church officials say.
Most of the county pastors interviewed credit the growth of black churches to the migration of African-Americans from Baltimore City to the county and a spiritual revival among many middle-age blacks who had left the church but returned after being victimized by downsizing or racism at work and experiencing unhappy personal lives.
"For years, the city was the place where people went to church, but that's changed," said the Rev. Kenneth L. Barney, New Antioch Baptist's pastor.
Many of the county churches were formed in recent years, some by ministers from other areas who saw the growing western and northwestern parts of Baltimore County as areas ripe for church growth.
At least one Liberty Road church, Greater Bethlehem Temple, moved from Baltimore City in recent years. Others are longtime Baltimore County churches.
The 4,000-member New Antioch Baptist began nine years ago with fewer than 100 people in Deer Park Elementary School.
Barney, 49, a Howard County native, had been pastor of a church in Laurel for nine years, but moved to Baltimore County to fulfill what he saw as a need there "for a teaching ministry. It's not your traditional yelling and hollering from the pulpit."
Next summer, New Antioch will break ground for its 3,000-seat sanctuary, which would be one of the largest in the Baltimore area. The church will keep its present building as an educational center.
In 1984, when the Rev. Charles Sembly became pastor of Union Bethel AME, it was the only black church on Liberty Road, he said. "A lot of people didn't come to the church at first because they figured a black church wouldn't have such a prominent spot on a main thoroughfare."
Until it moved to a former synagogue on nearby Church Lane in 1992, the church had stood in some form in the 8300 block of Liberty Road since 1826. Over the past decade or so, Union Bethel's membership has grown from fewer than 200 people to nearly 1,000.
Growing income for blacks translates to more elaborate houses of worship, the pastors said.
Union Bethel's newly renovated building has shiny pecan-colored wood pews and large stained-glass windows that show likenesses of such African-American heroes as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., abolitionist and journalist Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass.
Many of the county church leaders interviewed said they are prepared for further growth in membership.
Sembly showed how his dining hall can become an overflow room if the sanctuary is filled; it is outfitted with video monitors that can broadcast the service there.
Colonial Baptist has removable walls between the sanctuary and the fellowship hall. On Easter, those walls were removed to accommodate an overflow crowd, said the Rev. Mitchell McCraw, minister of evangelism.
Some county businesses laud the growing churches as good for business.
"From 1 p.m. to about 7 p.m. on Sundays, we are busy with church people," said Kohre Dennis, assistant manager of the Randallstown Popeye's fried chicken franchise.
He said Sunday business helped make the store one of the three top-grossing Popeye's in the area.
Many pastors hope the burgeoning black churches in the county will pay off in more black political power.