For the faithful of Queens Chapel United Methodist Church, it's been a long, joyful journey of spiritual and social enrichment.
One-hundred and forty-three years after its founding in 1868, the community celebrated another success: the dedication last September of a new $5 million sanctuary, complete with classroom space and a fellowship center. In all, 12,000 square feet has been added, a big step up from the adjacent former sanctuary that's been in use since the mid-1950s.
The attention-grabbing new sanctuary on Old Muirkirk Road in South Laurel is nearly camouflaged in a woodsy oasis against the thickening sweep of suburbia. The sanctuary, said the Rev. B. Kevin Smalls, pastor of the church, can seat around 700, including a balcony that holds 150. Smalls said the architecture is in the form of an African hut.
"It's not as long as it is wide, and the wideness creates an intimate space," Smalls said. "Everybody kind of feels close. It gives the profound sense that you're somewhere significant and holy, but it's small enough to give you a sense it's a personal experience as well."
Smalls, who is the 32nd pastor of the church, said architect Brian Olsen and builder Nick Trionfo did "a phenomenal job" on the new structure, which features a high ceiling and an octagonal shape. Smalls recalled when the church was searching for the right builder that Trionfo was the only one of six under consideration who quoted scripture.
"We said that's who we want," Smalls said, while admitting that's not to say the others in the running weren't believers, too.
Directly across Old Muirkirk Road is the church cemetery, sight of the original church building, which was founded three years after the end of the Civil War.
Writing about its history on the Queens Chapel website, church historian Marsha Brown said white landowners William Minnix and his wife, Henrietta, sold three-tenths of an acre of land for $5 to Thomas Queen and six other men who built a house of worship "for colored people" around Muirkirk. The cemetery was used for slaves and free blacks in the Muirkirk community that was then known as Rossville.
By 1870, Brown wrote, a long structure called Queen Chapel went up. It was destroyed by lightning in 1899 and rebuilt.
Later, to meet the demands of growth, the cornerstone for a new church was laid in September 1953. In 1987, again facing a space issue, the church bought 5.5 acres of land fromPotomac Electric Power Co.
Church members looked to a day when they would have a new temple or an existing complex that was refurbished. In 2001, the Potomac Capitol Investment Inc., donated land for the expansion of the cemetery and kicked in $75,000 toward the building fund.
The shady graveyard gently slopes downward through a stand of trees to Muirkirk Road, its age etched in many of the headstones. Israel Crump Sr., who was born into slavery around 1847 and fought with the Union Army, is buried under a Civil War headstone dedicated just last year. Another grave belongs to John Thomas Mathews, 1868-1946.
Sharing the gospel
Ashley Guest, an educator who lives in Laurel, said she discovered Queens Chapel through someone she met while doing an internship in 2009. She Googled the church and, within a month, had attended her first worship service.
Guest said she was in the market for a church that offered "a strong spiritual and Biblical foundation. I also look for a church that is friendly and welcoming."
Her requirements were met at Queens Chapel, she said.
Now, three years later, Guest serves as the new member coordinator. Along with others, she greets new church members and teaches a portion of the new member's class, which includes "a discussion about our commitment to Jesus and our commitment to the church," she said.
Guest is part of a congregation where sharing the gospel is seamless and nearly nonstop.
As a run-up to the regular 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning worship, there's church school at 9 a.m. On Wednesdays, participants have a choice of attending Bible study at 10:30 a.m. or 7:30 p.m. Also on Wednesdays, there's a prayer service at 6:30 p.m.
And there's a Bible study for young adults, called Off the Hook, on the first and third Tuesday of the month.
All of which underscores the busy schedule Smalls keeps as he ministers to his diverse flock, which includes Catholics, Pentecostals and Episcopalians. The largest international contingent hails from Nigeria, followed by Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia and the Caribbean.
Smalls' duties run from sitting with a member who passed away while he was holding her hand, to teaching young adult Bible study, attending meetings, helping plan funerals, and dealing with any conflict-resolution items and hospital visits that come along.
There are also his responsibilities as a husband and the father of three young children, which Smalls said include running errands and driving the children to school.
Smalls, 42, is a native of Washington who holds a master's degree in divinity from Gammon Theological Seminary, in Atlanta.
He said many of his members drive from Baltimore, Potomac and Upper Marlboro to be fed spiritually. In return, he begins crafting his sermons early enough in the week so as to, upon deep reflection, make any needed changes as his heart guides him.
"I want you to be assured you're loved by God," he declared. "We beat ourselves up; we get a lot of wear and tear.
"I want you to be informed how God works. I want you to be exposed to good theology. And I want you to be inspired to do something for others on behalf of Christ."
For Guest, Queens Chapel has become home. "Spiritually, it feeds me through the sermons. I have been able to apply what Rev. Smalls has preached about to my own life," she said.
"I am able to understand the message, absorb it, and apply it. ... Everyone (at Queens Chapel) is always willing to listen, always able to provide advice and is always there to provide a shoulder to lean on."