Church Joyfully Returns

2 Months After Lightning Strike, Bethel Reopens

August 31, 2009|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,

They made a joyful noise along West Baltimore's sleepy streets Sunday morning during a processional filled with hymns of praise, boisterous cheers and powerful hand claps.

It was the thunder that followed the lightning: Less than two months after historic Bethel AME Church was forced to close its doors because of damage from an electrical storm, its members marched through the streets surrounding the church Sunday to celebrate its reopening.

The Druid Hill Avenue church held its first Sunday worship service since the fire and drew dozens of faithful who started marching in celebration well before the start of the morning service.

The Rev. Frank M. Reid III, Bethel's senior pastor, said he hopes the reopening serves as an inspiration to the city that one of its oldest churches has quickly rebounded.

"At the same time that people are being hit by economic lightning and fire, in less than two months our church, which suffered tremendous damage, is back in," said Reid, the longest-serving pastor (20 years) of a church that dates back to the late 1700s.

Reid marched in the middle of the processional, surrounded by parishioners who embraced and sang songs such as "This Is the Day That the Lord Has Made."

"It's a reminder to people," Reid said, "that no matter how bad a hit you take, when we turn to each other, instead of turning on each other, a bad situation can become a good one."

Bethel caught fire after its steeple was struck by lightning on the evening of July 1. A Fire Department spokesman, Chief Kevin Cartwright, said that the fire did not spread beyond its steeple and bell tower, but the church's interior was damaged by water.

The church was empty at the time, and no one was hurt.

Bethel spokeswoman Crystal Lowe said Sunday that the church will hold a Bethel Restoration Fund drive during the second Sunday of September to raise money for restoration costs not covered by insurance. She said the church will look to raise $1.5 million.

About a week after the fire, Bethel began holding its services at Temple Oheb Shalom in Park Heights, which had offered its facilities through Labor Day.

The church and synagogue hold joint services in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and in the past the groups have engaged in the Black and Jewish Forum of Baltimore.

Bethel also held its services at Pier Six Pavilion in the Inner Harbor.

But yesterday Bethel members, including Mayor Sheila Dixon, rejoiced in returning to their church.

"We were away this summer being hosted by a great synagogue and now we're back in our church, and it's good to be back home," said Dixon, who marched in the procession.

"Bethel is a cornerstone of this community," the mayor said. "It's one of the oldest African-American churches here, and it's made a major contribution to what's going on in this neighborhood and in this city."

Bethel member Anthony Lacey, 43, of Clarksville said that many of the church's parishioners live in West Baltimore and were not able to attend services while the church was closed for repairs.

"We lost a lot of our congregation during the transition," said Lacey, a Bethel member for 15 years. "Everybody can come back home today, fellowship and be as one."

During yesterday's service, Reid baptized his nephew, 17-month-old Jeremiah Jay Douglas Young, while donning a robe worn by his father, Bethel's former pastor, Bishop Frank M. Reid II.

Reid said that the procession along West Baltimore streets not only announced that the church had reopened but could be a place of refuge for those suffering from economic hardship.

"As bad as things look with the state cuts, the furloughs, the city losing millions of dollars in services, what looks like an obstacle is really an opportunity," he said.

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