A church takes root in Pigtown

Religion: Two ministers and some volunteers planted the Power House, and the neighborhood responded.

April 24, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Jeff Anderson haunts Carey and James and Sargeant streets. He tugs nervously at his bluejeans and tennis shoes, exchanges pleasantries with drug dealers, and recruits children to a growing local enterprise. Young and tired, his hair close-cropped, he looks like another Southwest Baltimore boy.

The collar gives him away.

Anderson, 29, is pastor of the Power House, a 4-year-old Christian congregation so successful that, with little notice, it is taking a step that Baltimore zoning officials say is unusual. It is building a brand new church in one of Baltimore's oldest neighborhoods.

Adding to the challenge of the project is its location: a trash-strewn lot, once the site of a glass factory, on one of the poorest blocks in all of Pigtown.

"We have so many board-ups that a new building is very unusual in Pigtown," says Doc Godwin, president of the Hearts of Pigtown, a local community association. The last new construction in Pigtown was the expansion five years ago of a Washington Boulevard theater that failed.

"Around here," adds Godwin, "usually they're only tearing things down."

But by summer, a brown, wood-frame, 1 1/2-story, prefabricated building is supposed to be in place at 1352 James St., with four off-street parking spaces in back. The new structure, highlighted by a lighted, 20-foot beacon, represents the culmination of a story that began four years ago when a minister from California and an executive from New York drove down Carey Street, felt God's presence, and immediately ducked into the nearest bar.

The minister, Tim Carnahan, and the executive, Rhonda Radliff, had spent four monthsdriving around Baltimore on behalf of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), an Independence, Mo.-based church which split from the Mormon Church 150 years ago.

In recent years, the church had been successful at expanding in the Third World, but its U.S. congregations were graying. RLDS officials decided on a strategy of "planting" new, small churches in inner cities, says spokesman Larry Tyree. The RLDS congregation in Towson expressed eagerness to provide volunteers -- plus money from its own building fund -- for an inner-city church here.

Carnahan, a shaggy, easygoing man with a Newport Beach accent, was dispatched, and Radliff, a church member from New York, joined him. "As soon as we saw Pigtown, it was a sense of knowing God's call," says Radliff. She told Carnahan to stop the car, and they went into Sid's Tavern to ask the patrons if there was any space they could rent for a church.

Residents suggested a vacant, decaying convenience store at 1118 S. Carey St. After tracking down the owner through tax records, the Power House got a lease and began attracting local teen-agers to the church with offers of prayer and free pizza. Parents and grandparents followed.

Four years later, the church has baptized 42 members. Anderson, who had been teaching school and ministering to the homeless in Houston, moved to Pigtown in May 1998 to become pastor, freeing up Carnahan to work on other church plantings. Both pastors live in the neighborhood, and Anderson's wife teaches at Diggs Johnson Middle School.

"We want to be Pigtown's neighborhood church," says Anderson.

The two made certain accommodations to their surroundings. To counter community skepticism of their motives, they did not ask for offerings for the first three years. And they spent so much time on the street that they took the unusual step of wearing collars -- only a handful of RLDS pastors worldwide do so -- so they will not be mistaken for members of Pigtown's seedier elements.

"At first, a lot of people thought Tim was, well, not necessarily nuts," says Gloria Pestridge, a Pigtowner who was baptized last August. "Let's just say, we thought he had guts."

They filled the tiny church, which can hold 38 people at a time, with desks, filing cabinets and computers donated from other churches and Radliff's employer, Paribas Corp. Outside, young members painted the brick storefront and steps bright colors: blue, red, green, yellow and purple.

Inside, Anderson and Carnahan scheduled events for almost every evening: after-school tutoring sessions, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and Friday night "Pepsi and pizza" sessions for neighborhood young people. On Sundays, they combined a more traditional morning worship service with a free-flowing Sunday night event, where residents, usually wearing nothing more formal than jeans, are encouraged to share their minds.

Residents were intrigued by the mix. Pestridge, a homemaker, moved from Brooklyn to Pigtown in 1977, about the time her brother was mysteriously murdered. She all but stopped going to church. But three years ago, police identified suspects, and she found herself "sitting in the courtroom and saying a prayer for the man who committed the murder and his family."

About the time she had that "change of heart," Pestridge began attending the Power House.

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