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'Most people leave Sandtown. They came back': Years after fire, Baltimore church rises from the ashes

Dr. Lisa Weah, pastor at New Bethlehem Baptist Church in Sandtown-Winchester, talks about the church's re-opening ceremony. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun video)

The Rev. Lisa Weah stood on a makeshift stage outside her newly rebuilt church in Sandtown Winchester in West Baltimore on Saturday, smiling as a marching band drummed out a heavy, celebratory beat for the church’s reopening.

“Somebody give God praise on Carey Street,” Weah said, as the crowd before her cheered.

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“I’m so glad to be home. There’s nothing like home,” said Ruth Thomas, 78, a longtime New Bethlehem Baptist Church congregant who now serves as an usher — or what she calls a “doorkeeper for the Lord.”

“It’s my whole life,” the retired Maryland Transit Administration worker said.

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After an electrical fire destroyed the church in 2016, many in the community weren’t sure this day would come. Not everything that burns here is reborn, as is made clear by the charred hull of an old vacant rowhome halfway down the block.

The neighborhood, which fell under an international spotlight after the death of Freddie Gray following an arrest there in 2015, has seen better days. Five people were shot in a single incident a few blocks away from the church in February, amid other violence. Poverty took root long ago, neighbors say, making signs of new life here rare.

But Weah was committed to bringing the 69-year-old church back as the “stabilizing force” it’s always been, she said, so she embarked on a fundraising effort to rebuild even as the church’s membership dwindled from about 500 before the fire to half that now.

On Saturday, the pastor beamed at the result: a $1.3 million facility funded with local donations and additional financing from M&T Bank, officials from which were on hand to help celebrate.

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“Now that we’re home, they’ll be coming home,” Weah said of the church’s lapsed members.

In fact, with more space for educational and job-training programs, food drives and community meetings, she thinks they’ll grow bigger than ever, she said.

“A community like this desperately needs what the church brings to the environment,” she said. “We are a stabilizing factor, we are a peaceful factor, and we also provide resources that are lacking.”

We are a stabilizing factor, we are a peaceful factor, and we also provide resources that are lacking.


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Theodore White, 71, who has owned a home on the block the last 22 years, agreed.

“It’s good for the neighborhood,” the retired construction worker said, taking in the celebration from a chair to the side of his front stoop. “It’ll keep some of the crime down a little bit.”

The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood — home to some 15,000 people where about half of children live below the poverty line and nearly a quarter of adults are out of work — drew national attention as the place where Freddie Gray was arrested.

For the reopening, there were pony rides, an inflatable moon bounce and two marching bands. Some congregants cried happy tears, others smiled wide and danced. Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford gave Weah a citation honoring the reopening of the church. And again and again, people turned their gaze down or up to the sky and prayed.

During one blessing, 20-year church member and lifelong Sandtown resident Lucky Crosby, 51, stood with his hands outstretched, happy for the day’s arrival.

“Most people leave Sandtown,” he said. “They came back. That’s the most ringing endorsement I can give them.”

Crosby said the church is his “whole foundation,” and that its members held him up after the separate killings of his two sons — Lucky Crosby Jr. and Taymen Brown — in two unsolved shootings in the neighborhood less than six months apart in 2016.

“I buried both of my murdered sons here,” the elder Crosby said, nodding to the church. “But you can’t give up on the neighborhood because of that. I will never do that.”

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