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Congregation gathers to hear consoling words and song after fire

At the parsonage of the Sinnah family, flowers and other tributes adorn the fence and entrance, after the fatal fire that took three lives.
At the parsonage of the Sinnah family, flowers and other tributes adorn the fence and entrance, after the fatal fire that took three lives. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

The pastor sat quietly, stoically and alone at the end of a pew at the front of the church, sunlight on his shoulders from the lace-curtained window to his right. It was the first Sunday after the fire that took the lives of his wife and teenage son, so the Rev. Samuel Sinnah did not speak during the service. He let others do the preaching.

His associate pastor, the Rev. Mike Busker, led the congregation at the Brooklyn Park Church of the United Brethren in Christ. He called out the prayers and hymns: "Blessed Assurance," "Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow, "It Is Well With My Soul."

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Then Phil Whipple, a bishop visiting from Church of the United Brethren headquarters in Indiana, delivered a sermon about darkness and despair, about faith and hope.

Though the tragedy was fresh, and their pastor sidelined by his loss, the congregation turned out full, and then some.

The church has 25 members, but all must have been there. By the time the 11 a.m. service ended, nearly twice that number had slipped out of Sunday's cold and into the warm church.

They prayed. They sang. They embraced their pastor as he made his way up the aisle. They gave him space when he sat alone at the end of the pew at the front.

The brick church takes up a corner of a residential neighborhood near the Patapsco River. The white, two-story parsonage sits on the opposite corner. Sunday's winds shook the charred remains of the parsonage, the frame of what had been a large rear addition.

Early Tuesday, a fire ripped through that section of the pastor's house.

According to Anne Arundel County officials, Sinnah; his 39-year-old wife, Lettitia; and their 20-year-old son, Joseph, made it out of the house. But another son, 17-year-old Sundima, did not. Lettitia Sinnah ran back into the parsonage to try to save her son. She was followed by a neighbor, 45-year-old Chris Rickman.

Neither Lettitia Sinnah nor Rickman made it out alive. Nor did Sundima.

While a funeral service for Rickman was held Saturday, the memorial for Lettitia and Sundima Sinnah has not been scheduled. The Sinnah family is from Sierra Leone, Busker said, and travel arrangements for relatives must be made.

On Sunday, it was left to Whipple to find consoling words for Samuel Sinnah and his congregation.

Whipple spoke of life's valleys, saying the Brooklyn Park congregation found itself "in a deep, dark valley you never could envision a week ago." The deadly fire had made it so.

"Such valleys are inevitable, Whipple said. "You are either in one or headed to one or just getting out of one."

The key, he said, is to learn from those experiences and not lose hope.

Those who believe in God should not wonder why bad things happen, Whipple said, because there's no good answer to that question and asking it shakes a person's faith and sense of hope.

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Hope, Whipple said, "is something that draws us to a foundation of faith in God. Just think back to events in your life when you had a difficult time … and God gave you strength to move forward. We look to the past to find the foundations of our hope."

Two young members of the congregation sang during the service — Maurice Kabangai, the pastor's 25-year-old nephew, and Khadijah Deen, a 16-year-old friend of Sundima Sinnah.

Deen, who said she received text messages from Sundima just hours before he died, sang Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and Christina Aguilera's "Say Something," crying in the closing phrases: "I'm sorry that I couldn't get to you, and anywhere I would have followed you."

Kabangai, a native of Sierra Leone like his cousins, played guitar and sang a Jim Reeves spiritual, "This World Is Not My Home." His voice cracked as he whispered the final words, "The angels beckon me from heaven's open door, and I can't feel at home in this world anymore."

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