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Wetlands accord lets church return to baptism site


TRUEMAN POINT -- In a freshly cleared field on the banks of the Patuxent River, sweet voices rose above the trees in what was as much a celebration as a religious ceremony.

More than 100 bishops, church elders and followers of the Pentecostal Holiness faith gathered yesterday in the southernmost community of Prince George's County to baptize 20 church members in the calm waters of the Patuxent.

For the first time in four years, the baptisms were held on this historic land, which served as a tobacco landing in Colonial times and for many years as a segregated beach for African-Americans.

This year's mass baptism by immersion marked the 50th year members of the Pentecostal Holiness faith have been "taken back" in the waters of the Patuxent.

For 46 years, the service was held on the historic land now owned by Bishop Dr. Leon Harper, leader of The House of Prayer of the Apostolic Faith Church of God Inc.

But for the past three years, the service took place on a neighbor's property as Bishop Harper dueled with the Prince George's County Department of Environmental Resources over use of his land.

The neighbor's land had little frontage on the river and no historical meaning. The people wanted their long-time baptism site back.

But George Chakhtoura, of the county environmental department, said that Bishop Harper could not cut his grass, which, as riverfront land, is regulated by the state Chesapeake Bay Critical Area law.

"It is tidal wetlands, and the grasses feed the entire food chain -- birds, turtles, snakes, insects," Mr. Chakhtoura said.

Frustrated, Bishop Harper went to members of the Prince George's legislative delegation, who introduced a bill in this year's General Assembly that would have carved out a loophole in the law, allowing him to mow his grass.

The measure was withdrawn after lawmakers persuaded the county to work things out amicably with the bishop. So in July, the county and Bishop Harper reached a settlement.

But hold the prayers of gratitude.

The county has told Bishop Harper he will not be able to cut the grass more than twice a year. When he does, it better not be lower than 18 inches. And the church's leader will be able to cut the grass only after the plants bloom.

So Bishop Harper mowed his field for yesterday's baptism.

"People have been coming to this river for a long, long time," he said. ". . . People have been coming here from West Virginia, Baltimore, Washington, Virginia -- all over the place -- for a re-enactment of what John the Baptist did. When the county said we couldn't come here, this familiar spot, that was the hurting part."

Yesterday's service began when the faithful gathered for opening services on the bishop's land about 50 yards from the river.

Bishop Francis S. Myles, whose church is in Capitol Heights, said in a stirring voice: "Last year we only had a path. . . . Is anything too hard for the Lord?

"Those being baptized today are goin' down in a liquid grave and will come up a new man. They'll have a new walk, a new talk."

Dressed in white, the people marched to the water's edge. They waited in two tents while followers were baptized in pairs.

Bishops Harper and Myles, each with the help of two elders, cradled the people in their arms. The people crossed their arms lTC on their chest, and then were "taken back" -- submerged completely under water.

Then, soaking wet, they were escorted back to shore. One woman reached shore and fell to her knees. Tony Smith, 31, of Hagerstown, said before he was baptized: "I've been saved, and I want to keep going on. I'm going to follow the Lord."

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