A Shelter For A Joyful Noise

Jewish Congregation Welcomes Group From Lightning-damaged Church

July 13, 2009|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

On a typical summer Sunday, the doors of Temple Oheb Shalom are locked tight. With observances of the Jewish Sabbath taking place on Friday night and Saturday and religious school out until fall, the Park Heights Avenue building sits empty.

Not yesterday. Hundreds of congregants of a different faith poured into the sanctuary, bringing along their love of God, their upbeat music and their fervent prayer to the otherwise quiet house of worship. A fire July 1 damaged the historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Upton and left its flock with no place to come together. But an offer from the synagogue's leaders gave them temporary refuge as their landmark building is repaired.

"The church may have been hit by lightning," the Rev. Frank M. Reid III told church members, "but the work of the church continues in Jesus' name."

Later in his sermon, Reid continued: "We discover how our faith helps us face the fires."

If not for the symbols of Judaism - the Holy Ark storing the Torahs, the Hebrew letters on the wall - it would have been hard to tell the Bethel congregants were anywhere but home.

"It solidifies what I've always believed," said Joshua Lawton, 23, of Towson, a relatively new member of the church. "It doesn't matter what religion you are - it's all about God. Period. End of story. Everything else is just about details."

He said he is grateful to Oheb Shalom for welcoming his congregation to their temple. "It puts an example on how the world should be, that people should help those who are in need," Lawton said.

The two congregations are not strangers. They hold joint services annually in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., maintain a community garden and engage in the Black and Jewish Forum of Baltimore.

Kenneth Davidson, the temple's executive director, said when he and his colleagues heard about the fire on the news, they knew they had to offer whatever assistance they could.

"It's what we're supposed to do," he said. "We're supposed to be welcoming to the stranger and in this case they're not really the stranger. This is an extension of our family."

Besides, he said, "we have the space."

The Rev. Dollie Truesdale, who is on the church's ministerial staff, said she has felt welcomed by the temple: "They said, 'Look, we're here. Whatever you need us to do, we'll help.' And they have."

The church has been offered the sanctuary until after Labor Day, when religious school resumes. Reid said he hopes the church will be repaired by then.

The sanctuary was packed yesterday, the singing filling the room. "Time is filled with swift transition, naught of earth unmoved can stand," they sang. "Build your hope on things eternal. Hold to God's unchanging hand."

Before the service began, Lawton stood out on Park Heights Avenue, along with a dozen others, helping direct cars to the right building. Lawton was philosophical about the fire. "We had our 30 days of praise right before it happened," he said. "Pastor Reid was saying, 'usually when you're blessed like this church is, the devil wants to stop your progress.' So we have to keep pressing on. We have friends. We'll be all right."

Dressed in her Sunday best, Johnnie Green, 59, who works with the church's "Ministry of Helps," said she sees the lightning strike as a small obstacle. "It's a little pimple," she said. "We feel happy and joyful that the church didn't burn down. We're just happy that God spared our church."

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