Searching for comfort

Recovery: A Northwest Baltimore congregation looks for answers and focuses on the future after a four-alarm fire damages its church.

January 24, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

St. Timothy's Christian Baptist Church, suddenly a shambles of charred wood and stone after a four-alarm fire, was something of the Washington family's life work at Groveland and Granada avenues in Northwest Baltimore.

The Rev. Carl R. Washington Sr., 70, brought a small flock here 28 years ago to what had been an Episcopal church. He said his parents, children and grandchildren had participated in the church's life.

He vowed yesterday to carry on a church expansion that is under way and keep elements of the charred 108-year-old sanctuary as proof that not all was lost: "We want to leave the structure standing, like a phoenix rising out of ashes," he said. "God has left a remnant to the faithful."

The cause of the fire Tuesday night is under investigation, and damage was assessed at $800,000, the city Fire Department spokesman, Michael M. Maybin, said yesterday. The basement was being checked as the point of origin, he said.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is assisting the city investigation because the agency is required by law to respond to all fires in places of worship in case they are hate crimes, said Kevin McCann, an ATF spokesman.

Three of Washington's daughters choked back tears yesterday while hugging dozens who gathered to grieve at the site. Like a litany, the pastor, his family and the parishioners listed the losses: The steeple has vanished. The organ pipes are gone. A vintage stained-glass window must have melted.

The 1894 craftsmanship was still evident in the handmade arches, rafters and small-scale pews in the rectangular sanctuary. Six burnt pastoral robes, along with Bibles and hymnals, were part of the damage estimates. And a brass cross had not been found, Washington said.

Gazing at the wreckage gave no answers.

"There are babies waiting to be baptized, couples to walk down the aisle," said Pia Taylor, 44, one of the pastor's daughters. "There's more life to live here."

Having grown up next door -- where the new sanctuary is being built -- Taylor recalled the outdoor gospel concerts, carnivals and picnics that drew youths from all over the West Arlington community.

Neighbors and congregants said the church near Garrison Boulevard was at the neighborhood's heart, an old and cherished landmark that housed generations of the faithful. Some who live near the church welcomed parishioners into their homes after the fire, which engulfed the steeple but left the construction project untouched.

"This entire community has been galvanized," Washington said. "All over the place, brothers and sisters gathered in the night, and houses were open to them."

News of the fire traveled fast. "We got calls from as far as San Francisco and Little Rock," Washington said. "The phone never stopped ringing."

He also praised "heroic" city firefighters and "compassionate" police officers who responded to the scene and provided a measure of comfort.

Fellow ministers offered to open their church doors for services, he said. Prayer services were planned at Washington's home last night, and worship services might be held at the church grounds later in the week, weather permitting.

The construction project, a sanctuary that will accommodate the 200-some members, will be done in two months, said Byron Davis, the general contractor. Insurance should cover the damage, church officials said.

Carmi Washington Turner, another of Washington's daughters, said she woke up crying.

"You might as well rip my arms off, I'd feel better," she said, her hands trembling in leather gloves.

"People who needed a meal, someplace to cry, people who didn't have a mother or father," she said. "This is a little church with a massive outreach."

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