Plaster falls, but not spirit


The constellations on the painted ceiling are falling in, the plaster on the walls is cracked and falling, but the spirit of the small band of congregants at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church is resilient.

Lovely Lane in Charles Village is the mother church of American Methodism, a stunning architectural gem, built in 1884 by the architect Stanford White as the Centennial Monument to the Christmas Conference that started the Methodist church in this country.

And a monument is exactly what the worshipers at Lovely Lane do not want, but what the church is in danger of becoming.

"Because we are so steeped in history and we are so steeped in tradition, I think we could be seen as a relic, as something to be adored," said the Rev. Nancy Nedwell, Lovely Lane's pastor. "But we're so much more than that. It's our history that infuses who we are and who we want to be."

It is a quandary faced by many of Baltimore's historic congregations: A beautiful, but aging edifice with a diminishing, maturing flock. The tall steepled churches of Baltimore desperately need renovation but what is the priority - fixing a building or building the kingdom of God?

Nedwell came to Lovely Lane last year after pastoring the 1,500-member Towson United Methodist Church. The move from suburban to urban ministry was quite a culture shock.

"This is the first church I've served in where I have to be buzzed in," she said.

Her flock is a fraction of what it was in Towson. There are 200 members on the books, but many have moved away or are homebound, Nedwell said. On a good Sunday, there may be 50 people in the congregation, and a good number of those will be visitors.

What you lose in numbers you gain in intimacy and enthusiasm, she said.

"Per person, this small band of people pull it off," she said. "They do it in a style that a lot of churches would envy."

The building, the congregation's pride and joy, is also its albatross. Nedwell desperately wants to begin reaching out to the community in a systematic way, furthering some small steps the church has already made - a Halloween party for neighborhood children, sponsoring the community celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

But the building is falling apart. The staff can't keep up with the simple cosmetic repairs.

"This is what we deal with," she says as she looks down on a small pile of plaster that has fallen from a cracked wall. "We keep cleaning, and it keeps dropping."

The leaking roof must be repaired before anything else is done. That alone will cost more than $600,000. Then the magnificent ceiling, which depicts the position of the constellations in the night sky at 3 a.m. the morning the church was dedicated, can be repaired.

And then comes everything else - chairs, carpeting, restoring woodwork, including the black birch pillars made of a wood that doesn't grow anymore. Total cost: $6 million. Impossible for the small band to pay by itself.

So they're looking to foundations, bishops and individual Methodists for help.

"A large part of what I'm doing is fund-raising - not anything I was trained in seminary to do," she said. "In 25 years of ministry, I've just never quite had to do what I'm doing here."

But what really excites Nedwell are the possibilities for ministry. She has opened the church gym to local groups. About 100 third-graders, part of a literacy camp called Super Kids, filled the rooms and halls this summer. And she envisions an after-school program for neighborhood children, possibly installing computers for them.

"I just think the church has to be a center for healing and wholeness of the city," she said. "If we neglect our responsibilities, we're just adding to the trouble in the community."

Nedwell's enthusiasm has created an aura of expectation in her congregation.

"There's an element of hope that we will regain," Esther Reaves said. "We're not going to regain people, but to get new people in to know what we're doing and hope to do." Reaves oversees Manna House, a Lovely Lane ministry that runs a soup kitchen and transitional housing for families.

That's what Bishop Felton Edwin May wants to hear. That's exactly why he sent Nedwell to Lovely Lane.

"I think during the passage of time and the change of ministerial leadership, things are beginning to turn around," he said. "I'm very hopeful about that church once again engaging the community in order that it might meet human needs where they exist."

May said he isn't worried about the state of the building, on St. Paul, between 22nd and 23rd streets. "If the mission and ministry is accomplished, then the renovation of the building will take care of itself," he said."We see no need to preserve institutions in lieu of the preservation of humankind."

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