`Church isn't just a building'

Faith: Undeterred by the collapse of their sanctuary, the worshippers of Antioch Apostolic gather to say `Hallelujah.'

February 24, 2003|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

A joyful noise arose when members of Antioch Apostolic Church met to worship yesterday morning. Members of the congregation sang, clapped, danced and shouted "Hallelujah!" Mothers balanced babies on swaying hips as nearby parishioners raised their hands skyward.

A few miles down Ritchie Highway in Arnold their 20-year-old church building -- which some members helped to build -- lay in ruins. Its sanctuary collapsed Tuesday under the weight of last week's record snowstorm, leaving a pile of gnarled siding and insulation where hundreds had come to find solace.

But as more than 300 members gathered yesterday in the Knights of Columbus hall in Severna Park -- a room more suited to Little League banquets and crab feasts than to a Pentecostal service -- the atmosphere was one of celebration, not remorse.

"It is obvious, even to the casual observer, we are not here having a funeral service," Bishop Chester M. Wright told his congregation. "This is not about what we don't have. This is about who we do have: Praise God. Praise God. Hallelujah!"

Wright's wife, co-pastor Alice Wright, led members musically on a keyboard rescued from the destroyed sanctuary. As parishioners loudly sang "God gave the assurance, everything's gonna be all right," it was obvious that most in the room believed it.

God tests his followers, Bishop Wright told church members, and, he predicted, this test would only make the fundamentalist congregation stronger.

"We lost a building, we didn't lose the church," he said. "If you needed proof this is real, this is it."

"Thank you for the hope, Jesus!" a member shouted.

The congregation has been homeless before. After the Wrights founded the church in 1970, it met in rented storefronts and in a warehouse until the Arnold location opened on 30 acres along Ritchie Highway in January 1983, after two years of volunteer labor by parishioners.

The church grew rapidly over the years. The Arnold building eventually served as the "Mother Church" for a 12-congregation family. Antioch has member congregations that meet in community centers and other rented space throughout Anne Arundel County, two in Baltimore City and one in Prince George's County, Wright said. All of the congregations -- a racially and ethnically diverse group of about 800 people -- gather for large Sunday and Monday night services, which were held in Arnold.

Now, the church -- which will begin demolition of its crumpled building this week -- must find a place to meet for the next year or longer as it rebuilds. Wright estimated the damage at $2.5 million.

"It's a loss materialistically, but spiritually I think we are on the way to something greater," Sylvie Zesbaugh, 45, of Annapolis said after the service to explain her exuberance.

"I feel we are blessed to be together," said Lori Alders, 42, of Glen Burnie. "No one was injured and we are all together -- it doesn't really matter where."

Alders and Wright were among those who drove to survey the sanctuary's remains again after yesterday morning's service. Behind yellow caution tape, sided exterior walls buckled out and second-story doors were flung open.

There, Wright, whose two sons also serve as church pastors, said he is thankful that most of the church's records, its computers and his thousands of pages of study notes survived. The adjacent Antioch Christian School, which has about 130 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, sustained less than $200,000 in damage. The school will meet at another location until repairs are completed in the next few weeks.

Before the collapse, which happened on Wright's 57th birthday, Antioch was planning to build an addition. Wright has met with the architect to revise the plans to build a church instead.

"The easiest way to survive loss and endure grief is to focus on the future," Wright said.

Nearby, Alders wept as she took a picture of the building where she had prayed for more than a decade.

"I wanted to think back on all the good times," she said. "I'm so thankful that the church isn't just a building."

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