As the youth choir sang out "I know that I can stand, with Jesus I can take it,' " four women in a back row rose to their feet with the measured dignity of age.
Others in Macedonia Baptist Church yesterday stood too, but the gospel lyric carried particular resonance in that back pew. Those four women represented 233 years of worship in the towering marble structure at 718 W. Lafayette Ave.
"I've been a member for 82 years," Gladys Brown said proudly.
The other three weren't far behind: Evertia Grant Tunstall has attended Macedonia Baptist for 59 years, Jannie V. Imes for 55, and Ina Lee, a relative newcomer, for 37 years.
Longevity is much on the minds of Macedonia's 700 members these days, old or young. The church is 125 years old this year, and is celebrating two other special anniversaries as well -- the pastor's first decade of service and the birthday of church centenarian Nellie Watts.
"The church is celebrating 125 years of existence, and my 10th year, and Miss Nellie's 100th year -- it's been a triple," the Rev. Marvis P. May said yesterday after presiding over the second service.
Such milestones are important, he said. "If you can't appreciate the past, you can't deal with your future."
Past, present and future appeared to be blended in abundance yesterday. The large sanctuary was nearly full -- grandmothers, grandfathers, parents and their children filled most pews -- and the service included the baptism of an infant.
Macedonia Baptist's rich past, say its members, has helped make it a West Baltimore institution.
The church traces its roots to 1872, the year W. Charles Lawson and Leander Jones, who attended what was then North Street Baptist Church (now Union Baptist), started a Sunday school in a loft above a stable in Vincent Alley, near West Saratoga Street.
With the blessing of their parent church, in 1874 Lawson, Jones and 21 others turned the Sunday school into a mission, a kind of branch church.
"We started in a stable, with the animals below. The men put a floor in the stable," said Edna W. Dunton, 85, who said she has attended Macedonia "all my life."
As is true for many others in the congregation, the church's history rolls off her tongue with the cadence of a catechism.
In 1875, the mission became Macedonia Baptist Church, according to members and church records. The next year, the congregation spent $3,000 to build a new church at 1617 W. Saratoga St.
The church prospered, and by 1925, it had 2,500 members -- too many for the new church. So they acquired the Gothic structure at West Lafayette and North Fremont avenues that they occupy today, paying $80,000 to buy a building from another Baptist congregation.
In May 1925, the Macedonia congregation left the old church on Saratoga and marched in triumphant procession to the Lafayette Avenue building -- an event that many at yesterday's services remember well.
"I walked over here with my mother," said Earline S. Ford, 76, one of the church's historians. "We marched here in 1925 -- and we've been here ever since."
History is vivid and memory a well-traveled lane at Macedonia Baptist -- particularly for members like Watts, who turned 100 earlier this month.
"I've been a member since 1919, when I was 20 years old," Watts recalled yesterday. She moved to Baltimore from Norlina, N.C., and joined Macedonia, she said. "I've been coming every Sunday I could get here."
Her loyalty is typical, and it goes back generations. Many parishioners joined Macedonia because their parents were members. Others, like newcomer Natalie Collins-Rogers, were brought into the fold by marriage. "My husband's family has been coming here for 80 years," she said.
Church members have taken care to preserve Macedonia's relics. A small room near the sanctuary holds many bits and pieces of the past -- an old Communion cup, the bell that summoned children to Sunday school in the 1930s, photos of the church and its faithful since its founding. Each has been carefully displayed and painstakingly labeled by the archives committee.
The task is important, Mays said, because Macedonia's stewardship will preserve more than the church's past.
"This church is part of the history of West Baltimore," he said.
Pub Date: 10/18/99