Thousands of churchgoers walked through a gate adorned with royal purple and gold balloons and ribbons. A large sign trumpeted: "Holy City of Zion."
To many, they had arrived at a promised land - despite the mounds of dirt, the construction equipment and chain-link fences.
"In the providence of God, we have come of age," said Bishop Walter S. Thomas, senior pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church. He stood in front of about 2,000 from the congregation who brought lawn chairs and parasols to a field where the church's new sanctuary will stand.
The church - with a 7,000-member congregation, one of Baltimore's largest - is moving to a 33-acre parcel straddling the city-county line. The move is part of a $200 million effort to reshape the area surrounding its current home in the Uplands community of Southwest Baltimore.
That plan is to bring 1,100 apartments, houses and condominiums, most of them affordable housing.
The city is paying the church $14.2 million to move to the Seton Business Park near Northwest Baltimore. The new church is expected to be ready by 2010.
Thomas called the project a terrific opportunity for the city and the church.
"In helping the city, we were able to fulfill our own dream," he said. "There is a need for affordable housing that the working class can afford. ... This allows the city to provide services and build 1,100 homes. And it allows us to expand and to bring more people to the church."
Having outgrown its current space, the church holds three services on Sunday and one on Saturday night.
"The congregation has swelled," said Patrick Johnson, a youth adviser who has attended the church for 18 years. "We actually outgrew the sanctuary a year after we moved in. This has been 10 years in the making because we needed something larger."
And don't even get started about the jostle for parking spaces, church members say.
Diana Fowlkes, a church member from Dundalk, said the lively music and empowering sermons, along with the dancers and artists, have kept her coming back every Sunday for the past 20 years.
"When you find a place you're getting fed well, you keep coming back," Fowlkes said.
"You truly get spiritually fed. People come in from being run down every day, and he gives you guidance," she added, referring to Thomas.
The church will move about six miles north to the site, which will have five buildings and 1,100 parking spaces. The new main worship facility will have a glass, brick and stucco facade and several prominent white crosses, according to church building plans. The sanctuary will seat 4,000, which is double the congregation's current space at the Southwest Baltimore site.
The site will also include a banquet hall, a chapel for small weddings and funerals, a health and fitness center, and classrooms for ministry training and technology training.
It's a far cry from the church's beginnings, when its founder, the Rev. Junius Gray, began conducting services in a basement in 1899 with fewer than 20 members.
Yesterday, church leaders and elected officials, including Mayor Sheila Dixon and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., spoke at the groundbreaking under a white canopy tent. Hymns played softly in the background.
"It's a great sign for health of the neighborhood when a church moves in," Smith said. "On behalf of Baltimore County, welcome, and thank you for coming our way."
The church members who came hauled their own lawn chairs and cooled themselves with paper fans, which had an image of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day of his "I Have a Dream" speech.
The Rev. Harold A. Carter from New Shiloh Baptist Church blessed the new grounds in the final prayer of the ceremony: "May this holy altar be the place where lives will be changed and folks will get to know the Lord."
After his prayer, the congregation began singing a hymn, thanking God for their new home.