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'One in Spirit'

First come the members of the Second English Evangelical Lutheran Church congregation, greeting friends with whom they have shared potlucks and weddings and baptisms and, more and more now, funerals.

Later, through a side door of the brick church, arrive the Oromo Lutherans. Members of a persecuted ethnic group in their native Ethiopia, they meet in an upstairs room to pray for peace in their homeland.

Next, the people of The Open Church haul a drum set and flat screen monitor and cart of shiny blue hymnals into the space that the Second English Lutherans have just left. Welcoming each other with long hugs, they recite their congregation's mission statement of "radically inclusive love."

Three different groups meet at this church with the tall white steeple on Sunday mornings. They share a belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but they use different words to praise him.

"We're all quite close, and we're happy with each other's company," said Second English interim pastor Cameron Coe. "But it's the secondary differences that keep us apart."

Second English is one of about two dozen churches along a four-mile stretch of U.S. 40 in West Baltimore.

On Sunday mornings, worshipers fill the streets and sidewalks here — men in sharply creased suits, women in hats with trembling silk blossoms. The names of the churches sound like a litany of prayer: Manifest Wonders Christian Center, Sacred Zion Full Gospel Baptist Church, Traveler's Rest Bible Church.

The churches have formed a loosely knit organization called the 40 West Ministerium, which runs a food pantry and assistance center, among other endeavors, said the Rev. Deborah McEachran, pastor of Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church.

Like Second English, several of these churches are home to multiple congregations. McEachran's church hosts a Burmese congregation in the afternoon. A small group of Korean Presbyterians gathers in the evenings.

At Second English, membership has fallen sharply in recent decades. As demographics shifted, few Lutherans remained in these communities on the city's western edge. And the longtime members are aging.

About 25 came to worship this past Sunday. Most appeared to be in their 60s or 70s; women far outnumbered men.

Before the service, the congregation sat so silent that locusts could be heard buzzing outside. The organ sounded promptly at 9:30.

Pastor Coe addressed the evolving nature of the church in his sermon. Christians need to embrace change, to experiment with different styles and music to remain relevant, he said.

He spoke of the deep faith of a Canaanite woman, who, in the day's Gospel reading, had beseeched Jesus to heal her daughter.

"It is that faith that the church must hold through whatever changes we experience," Coe said.

Momentous transformations lie ahead for Second English. The congregation is too small to pay the bills for such a large property, Coe said in an interview. The congregation is planning to sell the church building, perhaps to The Open Church, which has been leasing space for the past 18 months.

After the church is sold, the Second English congregation will likely dissolve or merge with another.

For now, the members follow decades-long traditions. After the service, everyone headed to a side room for doughnuts and coffee.

Dorothy Callahan, 84, was baptized in the church's marble font when Second English was in its original location downtown. That church, built in 1841, was demolished to make way for an expansion of University of Maryland Medical Center.

The current church opened in 1952, designed to accommodate a swelling congregation of young families.

"There were three services, and they still had to put extra chairs in the aisles," Callahan recalled.

Callahan and her husband were the first people to be married in the church. The pews had not yet been installed, so guests sat on folding chairs.

Her friend, Jane Anderson, 85, said she had marked nearly all of her life's milestones in this church.

"My kids were baptized here, confirmed here, married here," she said. "My husband was buried here."

But both women are open to change.

"The evolution of a successful church means you have to open your horizons," Callahan said.

The Oromo Lutherans arrived here about eight years ago — an offshoot of a larger congregation that meets in Washington.

The Rev. Teshome Duke called the congregation of about 30 to prayer Sunday. They prayed and sang in their native Oromo, punctuating prayers with the occasional "Amen." They sang hymns to African rhythms, clapping and swaying.

Tadele Deressa, 18, led a prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking for peace for the Oromo people in Ethiopia, where they have faced persecution.

Deressa closed his eyes and clasped his hands as he prayed. The congregation murmured responses; occasionally a woman would call out in a high, trilling voice.

"We pray for peace," said Feyise Dessalgne, 42, who brought her youngest child, 11-year-old Sifan Kassaye. "We pray for the land."

While the Oromos met upstairs, members of The Open Church set up in the main worship space where Second English had met earlier. On Sunday, the Oromo service began at 11; The Open Church started 15 minutes later.

The Open Church was founded three years ago by the Rev. Brad Braxton as a place for "people from varied ethnicities and capabilities, genders and sexual identities, and social and economic groups."

"We want to keep the great aspects of the black church and be more than that," said Michael Scott, 45, one of the founding members.

The congregation, which is predominantly African-American and includes many young adults, has grown rapidly.

"We know we're planting a church," said Michelle Howard, 56, a Randallstown teacher.

Braxton was recuperating from an operation, so the Rev. Michael Hunt led the service. He began by asking the congregation of about 80 to share hugs. Women exchanged kisses on the cheek, taking care not to knock off their hats.

Hunt, a math teacher, used arithmetic as an analogy in his sermon. He hung up classroom posters on the pillars of the church and challenged the congregation with a math problem.

He also addressed the disturbing events in Ferguson, Mo., and discussed the systemic racism that African-Americans face each day.

"We want to make sure our young people know the system is not here to destroy them, but to build them up," said Hunt.

From a hallway, near a plaque commemorating the winning bowling teams from Second English's past, the voices of the Oromos and The Open Church could be heard lifted in song.

The Open Church sang:

We are one in the spirit.

We are one.

We are one in the spirit.

We are one.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

If you go

Second English Evangelical Lutheran Church is at 5010 Briarclift Road in Baltimore. Services are held Sunday mornings. For more information, call 410-945-2350.

About the series

Postcards from U.S. 40 is a series of occasional articles taking readers on a summer road trip along the historic highway that stretches 220 miles across Maryland. Have a suggestion for where we should go next? Tell us about it at baltimoresun.com/US40Share. Follow the series at baltimoresun.com/postcards.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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