A joyful noise -- and java


Church's weekly coffeehouse features a heavenly mix of music and companionship

March 05, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

At a weekend coffeehouse in the nation's only World War I chapel, live jazz and poetry readings are just the half of it.

The regulars - three to four dozen people - at Epiphany Episcopal Church near the Odenton train station take their cups full of a certain vibe.

Built to house Army chaplains at Fort Meade, the intimate Arts-and-Crafts-style structure lately has a whiff of Greenwich Village back when Bob Dylan was young. That was the 1960s, and the many baby boomers here remember them well.

The Rev. Phebe L. McPherson, who started the weekly gathering two years ago, says the here and now is what counts at the Saturday Sundown Coffeehouse. The eternal can wait until the next day. She sits at a table near a handmade brick fireplace with a collection of people while the musicians jam.

Amid notes in the air, nobody seems like a stranger, not even the silver-haired one from Sharpsburg, who just drove up in a Corvette that nobody's seen before.

"This is all about celebrating life and bringing people together. We don't need to invoke the name of Jesus Christ," says the pastor, clad in a sweater and slacks. In fact, she says, the aim is to reach beyond religion - the community is invited to the free-for-all weekly event.

Diocese grants paid the talent for the first two years, but now the church has to support the Sundown series on its own. Organizers think it has the makings of a radio program.

"We're providing a home away from home," McPherson, 56, says. The unconventional scene suits her character. It was no accident of fate that she was the first woman priest ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. That was 30 years ago, and she's preached in this space for 20 of them. ("My baby," she calls the beautifully restored frame church.)

On the lighted floor stage, far from the pews, Jim Ballard is running the show with cool ease, as if he were the late John Coltrane's nephew - which he is. A psychologist who once practiced at the former Crownsville Hospital Center, Ballard plays the keyboard, sings, harmonizes with other performers and raps with the audience.

As Ballard keeps it going, McPherson notes the mix of black and white is in sync with her parishioners -the Odenton flock is far more diverse than most congregations in this rapidly developing part of Maryland, she said.

Outside, Epiphany's national historic landmark designation blends with the atmosphere inside to give the place a unique flavor.

Antique echoes of the "Great War" 90 years ago are all over the lovingly, recently burnished upstairs rooms furnished with a Victrola, Army bunk beds, museum pieces and period poems, posters and songs. "The Rose of No Man's Land" is one such almost-forgotten ballad, the heroine a Red Cross nurse.

Banter downstairs at the coffeehouse can cover topics from left-handedness to recent power outages. On a recent Saturday, Ballard chats up a co-star, elementary school principal Georgette Gregory.

"You're on a roll - don't stop now," they tease each other every time a line gets a laugh.

Gregory, whose school is in Prince George's County, expressively recites a poem by contemporary writer Nikki Giovanni. Later, she says she often chooses American poets past and present, including Walt Whitman and Maya Angelou.

"However the mood hits," she says. "The fireplace makes it at home and brings the audience close to us."

Across from her, the coffeehouse maestro nods. "It's folksy," Ballard says of the rapport in the room. "We keep the mistakes in and we don't try to grandstand. There's a lot of spontaneity."

Some Saturday gigs are more raucous than others. When fortysomething Chris Haley, whose day job is at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis, appears every other week, he's known to treat the house to impressions of the late James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, topped off with a wig.

Haley's a crowd pleaser, McPherson says, shaking up the 1918 chapel with that old-fashioned rock 'n' roll.

On today's song menu, however, the sound is slower and sweeter, like cream: First there's the 5th Dimension song "Wedding Bell Blues," a plea to a reluctant boyfriend named Bill. Another perennial, Kenny Loggins' "Danny's Song," with the refrain that opens, "Even though we ain't got money," goes down well.

Donna Fischer, wearing an electric blue blouse, pours the lyrics into the microphone.

A middle-aged Annapolis real estate agent with a lark-like voice, she and other performers share airtime with an electric guitarist named Dylan Thomas Johnson, a teenager named after the Welsh bard. His father, Bob, a Fort Meade museum curator, frequently shows up to hear his son play.

"We're open to new talent," Ballard says.

As daylight dims in the window panes, it's hard for an Epiphany coffee drinker not to notice something poetic happening in real life. The snow-dusted gravestones and the barren tree branches are a picture of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." The 18th-century English poet speaks of a plowman leaving "the world to darkness and to me." Scholars say it was radical back in its day, like the songs of the '60s.

Aphrodite Poulos of Severn, on her way out with Dorothy Lloyd of Pasadena, says, "This gives you a closeness with the people."

Said Lloyd: "This is our cup of tea."


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