Shutdown dampens church's Christmas spirit

Arundel fire officials say site was declared unsafe

December 26, 2003|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Santa Claus was suited up -- presents and all -- waiting to make his Christmas Eve entrance at the Glen Burnie Korean Presbyterian Church.

But within minutes, reality -- in the form of Anne Arundel fire and police officials -- intruded: The church building, which had been declared unsafe earlier in the day, was ordered closed.

Santa took off his costume. The 65 to 70 worshipers went home. And the church found itself with nowhere to hold its Christmas Day service.

"The 2003 Christmas spirit was stolen, taken away from us last night. And without the Christmas spirit, Santa Claus doesn't exist," church member William Choi said yesterday. "It just becomes a formality."

In some ways, the holiday shutdown -- which left church elders devastated and sleepless -- was the 23-year-old institution's own making.

Despite a cease-and-desist order issued for the building two years ago, church officials continued to hold Sunday worship services there.

The church's spiritual leader, the Rev. Chang Eun Chung, was the one who called the Fire Department on Wednesday morning -- after learning that the church had to be inspected before an about-to-expire building permit could be renewed.

"Had we known we were [not] in compliance, we wouldn't be rattling a cage," said Choi, who translated for Chung and a half-dozen church elders and members during an interview at Jim's Diner in Southeast Baltimore.

In hindsight, church officials said yesterday, they had perhaps misunderstood their status and responsibilities during a financially difficult and draining expansion of the church in the 100 block of Third Ave. S.W. The $1.3 million expansion hit an early bump when a contractor left without doing the work, draining money and leading to a decline in church membership, they said. Remaining members have made sacrifices since, they said.

When the cease-and-desist order was issued in 2001, officials said, they figured that using the building only for Sunday services would be OK because they had a plan to comply with the fire code and were making changes. They needed a bare-bones presence, they said, to keep functioning and avoid bankruptcy, and the Fire Department never returned to tell them they couldn't hold services.

"If services stop, you have a domino effect," Choi said. "If services stop, parishioners leave."

But according to a spokesman, the Fire Department didn't know the church was still using its building -- until Chung called.

"There's a responsibility that goes with a person that runs a business or invites the public to worship, to buy, to trade, whatever," said Anne Arundel Division Chief John M. Scholz. "And when the public enters a building like that ... they have to trust it's safe."

After fire officials deemed the building unsafe Wednesday, the church never should have held its Christmas Eve service, Scholz said. He said there were a long list of what he called "life-safety code violations" -- too many to allow for an immediate remedy.

"It only takes one time for a tragedy to occur," Scholz said, pointing to the Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 in February. "We have to maintain the public trust by enforcing the law, no matter what day it is."

But church elders said yesterday that they didn't have enough time to get the word out, leaving them no choice but to proceed with the Christmas Eve service.

When fire officials and police arrived, Chung was called out mid-service. Although officials told him that they could have 20 minutes to finish, the "spirit" of the service was gone, elders said. Their pleas to hold yesterday's service were met with a firm no.

"Yes, we were wrong. But do you stop Christmas Eve services?" said church member Phil Ahn.

As for the future, the group gathered at Jim's Diner said they have few options. The Fire Department will not let them use the building, and Choi's suggestion that a fire engine stand by during an hourlong service is not feasible because the department doesn't have the resources, Scholz said.

"A one-hour service -- why not? This is America," said Jacob B. Gim, a church elder.

Renting space for services would take away from the money needed to finish the structure, Choi said, and it is too late to find another site for this Sunday's service.

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