New church keeps Baptists on cherished land


Early yesterday, a "family" of about 300 mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters quietly gathered at the old Mount Olive Baptist Church cemetery for a chilly one-block walk to the congregation's new church at York and Bosley roads in Towson.

For them, the long walk represented a lasting victory in a half-century-long battle to preserve the hallowed land on which their new church was built.

The 102-year-old Mount Olive Baptist Church stands as a symbol of the vibrant black community of Sandy Bottom that founded it and disappeared under the wheels of the commercial encroachment that has re-created Towson. Much of the property that made up Sandy Bottom was originally bought and settled by the families of freed slaves and eventually sold to white real estate agents and developers.

"Most of the property has been passed off" from former Sandy Bottom residents, said the Rev. Avery N. Penn. "We wanted to keep it. It's where many of our members first learned the Lord's Prayer, where they first heard the 23rd Psalm, where they were introduced to religion. It allows part of our history not to be wiped away."

Ten months ago, the black congregation saw their antiquated 83-year-old church sanctuary razed. They were forced to hold regular services at the St. James Methodist Community Church, while their new building was being built adjacent to the old, on the site of a log cabin where the congregation was founded by the Rev. James H. Williams.

The congregation's return home and the opening of its new church made this Thanksgiving Day a particularly joyful day of celebration. The happiness and pride could be seen clearly on the smiling faces of the faithful, young and old, who walked arm-in-arm into a sparkling, ark-shaped, red brick building.

Led by Mr. Penn, the crowd flowed quickly down the sidewalks like the waters of a stream, pausing outside the doors of the new church for the formal ribbon-cutting and dedication. Then the faithful surged inside the two-story brick church, joining the choir in the joyous singing of "This Is The Day That The Lord Has Made."

The rows of pews inside the church were packed with well-dressed women in their finest hats, men in spiffy suits and several fidgeting children and babies, all smiling, singing, swaying and clapping their hands as the new church organ was fired up.

"When you are building a house for the Lord," Mr. Penn told the happy congregation, "you want to shout the victory."

Mr. Penn said the shape of the building came to him in a dream a few years ago. After he awakened, he made a sketch of what he had seen, and architects used the drawing as a model. "It was TC like Noah's Ark," Mr. Penn said.

The new church, however, is not so much about visions or architecture. It's also about faith in the future and devotion to the memories of the past wrapped up in a tract of land.

Through the years, Mount Olive Baptist Church held on to its land, resisting larger and larger offers from developers to sell their increasingly valuable land.

"We never considered selling our property," said Mr. Penn. "Without it, then black history would be lost and black possessions gone. This is one of the most valuable pieces of property in Baltimore County, one of the most sought-after corners. Without holding on, we would have lost our heritage and our identity."

"The white Realtors came in and moved all the colored folks out," said Clarence Myers, 74, who was born and raised in Sandy Bottom.

Said church member Jeffrey Lightfoot, who attended services yesterday, "A majority of the congregation grew up in this area. They know everybody else. This is a family-oriented church."

"Everyone here is family," said John F. Cromwell, who proudly gazed over the new building. "There are very few outsiders, but there will be now that we opened the new building. We knew this day would come, but we didn't know it would come so soon."

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