'Church or not, we're going to worship'

Cherry Hill congregation in shock after fire destroys building

December 25, 2008|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

As members of the Cherry Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church began learning yesterday of the overnight fire that destroyed their center of worship, the church's pastor vowed to hold regular services this Saturday and to work to rebuild.

The Rev. T. DuWayne Privette was visiting family this week in Ohio when he got word about 4 a.m. yesterday that his church had burned to the ground.

He booked a flight back to Baltimore yesterday afternoon and started dealing with the insurance company that covered the church property, in the 2800 block of Joplea Ave. in South Baltimore.

The church didn't have any planned services yesterday or today, during the Christmas holiday, Privette said. But he said he hopes another church is willing to open its doors to help the congregation hold its regular service Saturday.

"Pending that the Lord opens up a church for us, we will be in worship service," Privette said, "just to give everybody an opportunity to come together and worship in a time of crisis. It's very important we have a church on Saturday.

"But whether we have a church or not, we're going to worship."

Privette, 36, who has been a pastor at the church since 2003, said it was founded more than 30 years ago by members who started meeting in a small house. In 1988, the house was razed and members built a one-story church on the same property.

The church has grown to about 170 members and offers Bible study, an afternoon youth program, a food pantry and pastoral services in the community, he said.

Ruth Flowers, 76, and her husband, who died in March, were among the original founding members of the church.

Flowers, the church's community services director, went to see the charred ruins yesterday morning. She left in shock.

Some parts of the church - such as the doors in the front foyer that still had green Christmas wreaths hanging on them - seemed almost untouched. But other parts, including a large portion of an exterior wall, were destroyed.

"It was just unbelievable," Flowers said. "When you have really witnessed something grow up, and then see the destruction, it's just unbelievable."

Among the important things the fire damaged were the church's food pantry, used to help feed the homeless, and its membership records, she said. Flowers also lost her own laptop computer, which she had left at the church.

"Everybody is just like in total shock," she said.

According to city fire officials, firefighters were called to the church at 11:35 p.m. Tuesday and found the building fully engulfed in flames. Firefighters did not enter the building because of the danger, including the buckling of one of the exterior walls. No one was inside the building, and no injuries were reported.

Fire investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the blaze, according to Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman.

Jimmy Ferguson, who was pastor at the church from 1993 to 1997, went to see the charred ruins early yesterday and to help guard the site from possible looting. His assessment of the damage was grim.

"It is a total loss," Ferguson said. "When you see it, you might as well sweep it all up and put it in the trash."

He said he thought older, charter members who were involved in building the church - such as Flowers - would be devastated when they see the ruins.

"Oh man, oh man," he said. "This place is gone."

Flowers said she was devastated by the loss, but she was hopeful that the church would rebuild.

"It's really not about the building," she said.

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