Neighborhood pastor sees decades of change Dispute with nearby condos will pass, she says

August 03, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

The Rev. Nettie Finney rose to the pulpit yesterday at her church on 813 Sharp St. She praised Jesus, she preached, she danced. She has done this every Sunday for more than 60 years.

Finney preached here when the surrounding neighborhood was poor and integrated, she preached when the city tried to condemn the houses 25 years ago, and she preaches now that the black residents -- including some of her congregation -- have moved away and Otterbein has turned white and wealthy. She sees no reason to retire.

"I ain't no senior citizen," she says. "I'm only 96 years old."

Finney has held Christ Spiritual Baptist Temple longer than Augustus Caesar ruled Rome. If anyone in Baltimore has been preaching longer, uninterrupted, she'd love to hear about it. Her tenure at the church has seen six popes, nine mayors, two husbands (both left her a widow), and 10 presidents (she started during FDR's first term).

Her faith and longevity, in the face of six decades of upheaval around her, are such that many of her parishioners suspect her of having special powers. It is gospel to some in South Baltimore that Finney's prayers stopped a highway from coming through the neighborhood during the 1970s. And despite chronic sinus trouble and ingrown toenails, Finney hasn't seen a doctor in 10 years.

"To go like she goes, you know she's one of God's anointed," says church deacon Jannie White, 61. "She is our superhero."

And if Finney ripped off her purple vestments -- Lord knows she has the strength -- the "S" on the Superwoman suit underneath would stand for South Baltimore.

Nettie Carter was born in the neighborhood June 8, 1902, the youngest of William and Maggie Carter's three children. Her father died when Nettie was 20 months old, and so her mother raised her on Hill Street, supporting the family by doing laundry. After the eighth grade, Nettie dropped out of school and went to work.

At age 30, Nettie, then married to John Briggs, took ill with a mysterious stomach ailment. By her estimation, she was about to die when God appeared to her.

"He told me that you can preach and spread my word, or you will die," the self-trained pastor recalls. "I said I'd preach, and I'm still trying to live up to that promise."

Using her savings and those of her first parishioners, she bought a storefront at 167 W. Henrietta St. and opened a church in about 1934, she recalls. The membership grew to more than 100 -- far too crowded for the small room -- so the Christ Spiritual Baptist trustees scraped together the money to buy 813 Sharp St., then an old feed and grain store, in March 1949.

They have been here ever since, adding air conditioners and a back room onto the skinny, one-story building with red-cushion pews.

Twenty-five years ago, Mayor William Donald Schaefer gave Finney a scare by condemning the nearby houses and asking the church to move to make way for a highway. But the interstate never came.

Still, the condemnation of the houses forced out residents, mostly African-American renters. The properties were sold to urban homesteaders, mostly white, who spent thousands on rehabilitations. The church has gotten along with these very different neighbors -- until recently.

Last month, the church's next-door neighbors -- the owners of Schoolhouse Mews Condominiums in the former Booker T. Washington Elementary -- hired a lawyer who sent a letter to Finney. The church's three air-conditioning units, cut into an exterior wall, protrude about a foot onto the condo's property, the letter said. If the units aren't removed, the lawyer has been authorized to file suit against the church for "trespass and nuisance."

The letter shook Finney up.

No lawsuit has been filed and both sides hope to reach a compromise. But the minor dispute has taken on racial dimensions.

"Is it because we're black?" asks White, who raised eight children in Otterbein before relocating to Sharp-Leadenhall, a black neighborhood to the south. "We are trying to serve the Lord peacefully, we don't bother anyone, but they are going to sue us? The only thing I can take from that is they don't want our church here, period."

The condo residents find such objections exasperating. To them, the dispute should be a simple issue of safety and property rights. Several guests have bumped their heads on the air-conditioning units as they came to visit condo owners at night.

"I like living next to the church," says Christi Barret, a flight attendant who moved into a condo here nine years ago. "But they have made judgments about us without really getting to know us. If that's not prejudice, I don't know what is."

Finney takes the long view of the dispute. The problem, as she sees it, is that owners of the 12-year-old condo project -- relative newcomers -- don't know the history that makes the church sacred space in South Baltimore.

"This problem will be resolved, I'm sure," Finney says. "I'll outlive it."

Pub Date: 8/03/98

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