East-side Church To Put Down Roots In Brooklyn

July 27, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

The John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church has served the East Baltimore community for 82 years, the last 58 of them in a cozy, pitched-roof meeting-house on Ashland Avenue, in the shadow of the Johns Hopkins medical campus.

Across the street, a sign on an empty block of land welcomes visitors to the "Science and Technology Park at Johns Hopkins." Next to that, another post tells church members to park there. But the Rev. Frances "Toni" Draper, who's led this congregation for seven years, knows that soon there will be few places for them to park at all.

The burgeoning science complex and its accompanying redevelopment project, set on land once overrun by drug dealers, addicts and rats, have swallowed dozens of acres. More than 500 buildings have been demolished in the first phases of the $1.8 billion effort and more than 400 families moved, many of whom once worshipped with Draper. Now the development is a factor in the church's relocation as well.

Come Sunday, the 130-member AME Zion Church, christened after the founder of Methodism, will worship in Brooklyn on the dividing line between Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County. It will also take on a new name, Freedom Temple, to reflect a renewed goal of combining people from all walks of life - every race, generation, ethnicity, income level and educational background - into one congregation.

"It fits in that it's more modern, and it's a church of freedom," Draper said. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass worshiped in AME Zion churches, which developed two centuries ago as a black denomination of the Methodist church.

Draper had just finished giving the last Sunday sermon at John Wesley and was already looking ahead to the first at Freedom Temple. The facility, serendipitously located at 900 Church St., has more bathrooms and can accommodate people with disabilities. It has 5 acres, seven commercial garages, a community center and room to grow, Draper said. She dreams of beginning a school on the property one day.

Upstairs, on the landing just outside the sanctuary entrance, another pastor hones fresh visions for his own church in Draper's abandoned space.

The Rev. Stephan Colbert, who already leads a school as the principal of Dunbar High, got what Draper called the "divine hookup." City of Hope Ministries, his fledgling Baptist mission church with a smaller congregation, is losing its worship space at the end of the month, just in time to move into Draper's.

"It worked out perfectly," said Colbert, who's worked as an educator in this community for 25 years and helped shape three of its generations. His coming-in settles Donald Gersham's fears. He's the president of the area's Save Middle East Action Committee, and he considers the current church an anchor.

"I did not want them to leave," he said after Sunday services. "But knowing that another church is coming in to continue the legacy makes it no problem at all."

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