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Church is more than a building; Belief: Fire heavily damaged their sanctuary, but congregants find their faith strong at another site.


They came through the fire, and they came through the ice, and they came through the bar at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3 -- and none of it got in the way of the Lord's business yesterday when the congregation of the Apostolic Truth Tabernacle gathered for Sunday services.

With hands and voices raised in gospel song and Pentecostal prayer, nearly all of the 120 members of a Hampden church heavily damaged last week by fire began a two-hour worship service at 10 a.m. in the FOP meeting room. Pastor Thomas J. Cobb exhorted his flock to let faith in God guide them through an uncertain future.

"I know to some of you today, having church here is rough because we are not in our sanctuary," Cobb told the parishioners, who filled row after row of folding chairs in the spare, industrial room. "But one thing about God -- He is not set in concrete. He can move. And He is here today. The Holy Ghost told me -- everything is going to be all right!"

The Pentecostal congregation, which Cobb founded in Southwest Baltimore's Pigtown in 1980 and moved to a century-old building in Hampden several years later, lost its stone sanctuary Wednesday night to a four-alarm fire.

The building in the 1000 block of W. 36th St. was so severely damaged that Cobb warned congregants yesterday not to go in because the remaining structure could collapse.

The cause of the fire remained under investigation yesterday, said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, spokesman for Baltimore Fire Department. Damage to the church and its contents was estimated at $700,000, Torres said.

After the fire, offers of help and temporary refuge poured in, Cobb said. Among them was the use of FOP Lodge No. 3 at 3920 Buena Vista Ave.

"I went down the day after the fire and I made the offer," said FOP treasurer George F. Eckert. Cobb asked him what the rent would be, and Eckert said none would be charged. Eckert was worried about one thing, though: To get to the room being offered for services, parishioners would have to walk through the FOP's bar.

"I asked him if there would be a problem, and he said, well, maybe he'll use it as an example of sin," Eckert said, recalling the lighthearted conversation when the pastor arrived Friday to look at the room being offered.

But yesterday's service did not dwell on sin. Instead, Cobb, his wife, Bonnie, the church band and several parishioners took turns leading the assembled throng in jubilant gospel hymns and exuberant prayers as they urged everyone to look to the future with faith and hope.

"We need symbols -- something we can look at, something we can touch," Bonnie Cobb said to the group. God gave his people many signs and symbols, she said, "but He also gave us a commandment, the very first one, that says do not let those symbols become idols. And let me tell you something, God is not confined to one building."

Choruses of "amen" and "praise the Lord" punctuated her brief speech, growing in volume with each hymn and speaker throughout the service and reaching a crescendo when Myesha Hurt stepped to the microphone for a roof-shaking rendition of the gospel hymn "Thanks Be To God."

The pastor said that yesterday's turnout included nearly everyone in the congregation, except for a few elderly people who may have been afraid of icy roads and sidewalks.

"One of the things I've been asked this week over and over is, 'Will this church go on?' " Cobb said during his sermon. "Praise God, this church will not get weaker. It will go on. I feel that God has prepared us for what we are going through right now."

Parishioners hugged one another and visitors after the emotional close of services and said they had taken Cobb's message to heart.

"In the last 10 years, we've really grown," said Victor Griffith, who with his family has been a member of Apostolic Truth for more than a decade. "I can see nothing but good coming out of this. It tests our faith."

"We will go on," said Hurt, the soloist with the choir. "A concrete building is not where God really dwells. He is in my heart."

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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