His parishioners call him a visionary leader and a strong man, but nothing could have fully prepared the Rev. Cecil Gray for what he first saw late Friday afternoon.
The house of worship he directs, Northwood-Appold United Methodist Church in Northeast Baltimore, lay in ruins, the charred remnant of a four-alarm fire that had torn through it 12 hours earlier.
The roof was gone. The interior was rubble. All that seemed to be standing were the church's outer walls and the metal cross atop its teetering steeple.
"It's like a death. … This church has so much meaning for all of us," Gray said as he gazed at the damage. "It hurts."
Gray was visiting a brother in Virginia when the blaze began in the building about 3:30 a.m. Friday.
When firefighters arrived, flames were visible inside the structure, officials said, and it didn't take long before they had reached the ceiling and spread throughout the 64-year-old edifice.
"There's a lot of dry wood in these older buildings," said Ian Brennan, a Fire Department spokesman.
More than 30 Fire Department vehicles arrived, along with about 200 firefighters, 120 of whom joined forces to fight the blaze during its first two hours. More arrived later.
There were no reported injuries, officials said. The building was empty when the fire began. The blaze damaged classrooms in the rear of the church that serve as part of the Northwood Appold Community Academy, a public charter school.
Officials have yet to determine a cause.
Northwood-Appold was formed in 1944 when four smaller local churches decided to merge at what is now the intersection of East Cold Spring Lane and Loch Raven Boulevard.
The Rev. Charles W. Flint, Methodist bishop of the Washington area, consecrated the building, a Colonial-themed structure with limestone trim and amber glass windows, in May 1949.
By the middle of the next decade, it was the fastest-growing church in the area, according to a Baltimore Sun article at the time, with more than 2,000 members and a Sunday school that boasted 120 teachers.
Membership today stands at about 200. It has waxed and waned over the years, according to longtime member Tim Johnson, who walked around the site snapping photographs Friday.
The congregation was entirely white, said Johnson, 56, which reflected the population of the neighborhood, until 1966, when he said he, his parents and his siblings became the first African-American family to become members.
"It was no big deal — that's just the way it was," said Johnson, whose late mother, Ti Whitelock, was remarried in the church in 1982 and whose funeral was there in 2000. "It was a cheerful, friendly place. I have great memories. Everything I know about religion, I learned here."
The neighborhood gradually became mostly African-American, and so did the congregation, he said.
Another neighbor who came by, 47-year-old Nathan Jefferson, also grew up in the church.
"I'm a quiet person. It was in Sunday school here that I learned to speak up for myself," he said, staring at what remained of the building. "This building is a landmark in this neighborhood. It's devastating to see this happen."
Brennan said when he arrived a little before 4 a.m., he could see flames from blocks away. Department officials said the blaze was so intense they couldn't bring it under control until well after dawn.
Police still had the normally busy intersection closed to traffic at 3 p.m. Yellow police tape surrounded the church, a reminder that the site is considered a crime scene until investigators can rule out arson.
Gray, who spent much of the day fighting traffic, arrived at 3:30 p.m., and as officials led him around the site, his face reflected shock.
As reporters surrounded him, though, he became resolute. He expressed gratitude for the efforts of the emergency workers, said he was glad no one had been hurt, and sounded thankful firefighters were telling him they would bring in a crane to save the metal cross before bringing down the steeple.
The congregation will meet Sunday, Gray said, in the church's education center across the street, and will do so as long as necessary, and the school will be in full operation by the end of the holiday break, wherever classes must meet.
And the pastor, now in his 12th year at the church, was sure his flock would survive this blow.
"This is a loving community, and it's a resilient one," he said. "We're going to rebuild, and we're going to do it right."
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun