City church opens doors to new home

After zoning problems, Empowerment Temple holds services at site

February 16, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The choir, more than 50 strong, was belting out a song that had many of the 1,700 parishioners and visitors on their feet, clapping and swaying and singing in time.

"We made it," they sang enthusiastically. "Thank God, we made it."

Made it, they have -- and in a big way.

The Empowerment Temple, a rapidly growing African Methodist Episcopal church, opened the doors yesterday at its new home in a former skating rink in Northwest Baltimore. Between two morning services, about 3,500 people crossed the threshold.

The sanctuary's debut came after more than the usual hassles that go with major construction or renovation. There had been community concerns to address, zoning problems to remedy. So the sense of celebration seemed magnified.

"We've come a long way," said the pastor, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, 32.

Church members, many in their 20s and 30s, spoke with excitement at finding a permanent home. Services had been held at Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy in West Baltimore.

In a reflection of the church's quick rise to prominence in just more than three years -- it claims about 6,000 members -- the front row was occupied yesterday by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"This is a very important congregation; it's growing fast," O'Malley said afterward. "And they had to overcome a lot of adversity and a lot of logistical problems and community concerns to get here."

The church -- at 4221 Primrose Ave., off Reisterstown Road -- is so big that four large screens project Bryant's image for those sitting in the outer reaches. Some sermons are taped and later televised. It is hard to imagine that the church began with, as Bryant put it, 43 people who gathered for Bible study in his living room.

Empowerment Temple had hoped to make room in its new sanctuary for even more people. In the fall, the city zoning board rejected its application for a 2,200-seat church at the site because of a lack of parking. The potential effect on traffic prompted questions from the Glen Neighborhood Improvement Association and some nearby businesses.

Then, Empowerment Temple downsized its plan to 1,700 seats. There would still be 55 on-site parking spaces, but the church leased lots from area businesses and made plans for shuttle buses.

After its life as a skating rink, the building was used as a church by Living Word Christian Center, but the capacity was 850. So Empower Temple's shrunken scheme still represented a doubling of seats. That won approval from the zoning board last month.

Yesterday's opening seemed to go well.

Ten minutes after the first service ended, traffic was heavy but not choked on Reisterstown Road. Sixteen church workers equipped with two-way radios helped to keep cars moving -- and stood ready to offer gentle reminders that no one could park at the KFC lot.

"It's going smoothly, better than I expected," said 17-year-old Chanika Pope.

Iris Smith, president of Glen Neighborhood Improvement Association, said, "It went OK, but I'll just avoid that area at that particular time just because of the congestion, the volume. It could have been worse."

Courtney Williams, 21, a Baltimore police officer who joined the church two years ago, said she felt proud stepping through the door for the first time.

"It's a blessing," she said. "It's been postponed and postponed, and now we're here. It feels like home."

Williams attributed the church's growth mostly to Bryant. He talks about the Bible in a way that "brings it to everyday life" for people her age, she said.

Mabel Copes, visiting from Mount Calvary AME Church in Towson, said Bryant is "running for the Lord on the fast track." The message she said he gives young people is that "they don't need to have babies, don't need to be on welfare. They need to go to school, be independent."

In his rousing sermon, Bryant told the crowd it is not too late to go to school, live debt-free or open a business. That exhortation dovetailed with his theme that faith and optimism can turn today's problems into a better tomorrow.

The church building, for example, is not finished. The stained-glass windows are not installed, and bathrooms need wallpaper. It may not be "all right," Bryant said, "but it's perfect."

Church officials said they did not have the exact cost of the renovations at hand but put the tab at several million dollars. The sum will take years to pay off, through a mortgage.

"This building is not paid for, amen," Bryant said from the pulpit before inviting contributions. "We don't want to rob anyone of the blessing of giving."

A river of people slowly made their way down rows, money in hand. With a smile, Bryant added a warning. If any checks bounced, they would be displayed in the church next Sunday.

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