Displaced church comes in from cold

Service moves inside after time outdoors

December 18, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

The Rev. Mike Kemper stood on the pink-carpeted platform lined with poinsettias, facing the 50 or so people assembled in rows of chairs.

Three large, upholstered chairs sat behind the pastor. A Christmas tree with a large golden bow twinkled with white lights at the back of the sanctuary. And heat, blessed heat, blanketed the congregation that had gone without such creature comforts for about nine months.

"Just a couple weeks ago, we didn't have nothin'," said Kemper, 46, to his congregation, a smile on his face.

"We were still in the parking lot," replied a church member, referring to their previous location, less than a mile away.

Kemper and his Charm City Church hope to make the new space, at Frederick Avenue and Payson Street in Southwest Baltimore, a permanent home - after holding services in a parking lot behind the building they had been leasing.

The city had mistakenly sold that building twice at tax auctions, and the congregation ended up being evicted by its landlord.

"It's just a treat for us to be in here," said Bruce Gagne, 26, of Linthicum, a church treasurer and trustee. Gagne recalled toting the sound system in his car during the church's months of homelessness, its chairs and tent coverings stored in cargo containers.

"We've got a strong, strong congregation because of it," Gagne said, alluding to their days without a roof. "If people can go through that with us ... that's evidence of their faith."

Their new site has a nursery, basement and an upper level with open space and classrooms - a far cry from the makeshift sanctuary of chairs, kerosene heaters and a cord across Pratt Street drawing electricity from a nearby home to their outdoor meeting place.

Clayton J. Anthony, who owns the Frederick Avenue building that used to house his True Vine Christian Worship Center, has allowed Charm City to come in from the cold on Sundays, even as church leaders continue working through the details of staying, Kemper said.

Anthony said he knew nothing of Kemper and his congregation's plight beforehand.

"There's something special about him that really, really touched my spirit," Anthony said of the other pastor. "We just got along from Day One."

God willing, Kemper said, Charm City Church might eventually manage to buy the building.

"We're just grateful to be off the street," said the South Baltimore native, who describes Charm City Church as nondenominational and "Bible-believing." "We don't want to leave the neighborhood. There's a great need here."

Church members, mingling before yesterday's service with cups of coffee and Dunkin' Donuts, said they have been blessed after a year filled with trials and disappointments.

"It's been rough, but we've been hanging in there. ... It feels good not to be in the cold, to have a bathroom, somewhere for the kids to play," said Darrin Moore, 37, who has come to the church for two years, through bouts of homelessness and joblessness. "It's been big ups and big downs, but we're still going up."

Beulah Wilbur, 80, agreed.

"God's working with us," said Wilbur, who has repeatedly hosted the church in her Southwest Baltimore home. She said she hopes the congregation of about 75 will thrive once more, after losing members during the months outdoors.

Last week, Kemper said, Charm City finally ended a legal dispute with the company that owns the red-brick building at Calhoun and Pratt streets, formerly a Southwestern District police station. The church had signed a lease in May 2004, Kemper said.

Toward the end of 2004, the congregation was told that the city had accidentally sold the building twice at tax auctions. The second owner, their landlord, was bought out by the first, the Virginia-based Mooring Tax Asset Group.

Throughout 2005, the church and company struggled for an agreement that would allow Charm City to remain in the dilapidated structure that members had spent countless hours renovating. In February 2006, the church was evicted.

Then, Kemper said, instead of going to trial last week for compensation for the congregation's work on the old station, he told Mooring that as far as he was concerned, the case was closed.

The church received a $28,000 check from the company, the pastor said, which he plans to put toward the $80,000 needed to permanently occupy the Frederick Avenue building. Now that they are indoors, Kemper hopes to turn his attention to fundraising.

For Kemper, the past months have been just another bump encountered in the congregation's five years, during which they've also met in Carroll Park.

"We're so excited to be here today, to be out of the weather, to be out of the cold," Kemper said in a prayer yesterday.

"I don't want to just be another church on the corner," Kemper told his congregation as he closed the service. "This is just a beginning."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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