Congregation seeks refuge from the storm


Looking at the ruins of his Pimlico church, its roof caved in by an unbearable load of snow, the Rev. Jimmy Hunter mused aloud about what to tell his congregation.

"I'm really hurt to see it like this," said Hunter, a burly Baptist preacher with a goatee, who sprinkles Bible verse into casual conversation. "I really don't know what to preach.

"What do you say? God will provide? Trust in God? We walk by faith, not by sight? What do you say?"

Hunter is the pastor of St. John Baptist Church, a brown brick structure on Dupont Avenue with a tall, white steeple that until Monday morning stood proudly in the Pimlico neighborhood.

Now, the steeple rests at an angle inside the church, along with the remainder of the roof. A red "Condemned" sign is taped next to the front doors.

When Yvette Andrews saw images of her damaged church on television, "I said, 'Oh my God, this is devastating.' My brother was married in the church. And it's gone. I could not believe that big hole was sitting in the middle of my church," she said.

The building, which was insured, will have to be torn down. But the 47-year-old congregation's 200 members, a mix of youth, working-class folk and retirees, vow to rebuild on the same spot.

"Members of my congregation have been calling and crying, 'What are we going to do, pastor?'" Hunter said. "We're going to have to rely on the Lord. We're not going to let this stop us."

The first sign of trouble came shortly before 9 a.m. Monday. It had been snowing heavily for several hours, on top of the snow that had fallen over the weekend, when Deacon William Gordon got a call from a security company. The alarm at the church had triggered, and the security company always calls Gordon, who lives just a block and a half away.

He walked to the church to check it and wait for the police. He figured the alarm had been set off by snow piled against the door, and he figured his suspicions had been confirmed because the building appeared secure.

"I went up and checked around and didn't see any areas where anybody might have broken in," Gordon said.

He unlocked the door and went inside to turn off the alarm.

"I heard a loud banging in the sanctuary, a lot of rumbling going on," he said. "I went to go look in the sanctuary and saw over top of our pulpit where Sheetrock had fallen in."

He went to a phone and called a fellow deacon to inform him of the damage. While he was on the phone, he said, "I heard another loud bang. I went and looked in the sanctuary again and all the Sheetrock had fallen in."

"I told Deacon Caldwell I had better get out because it sounded like the roof was collapsing," he said. "I got out and locked the door, and by the time I got out the front door, the whole thing started collapsing. It looked like something in slow motion, slowly, gradually going down."

Gordon said he stood in front of the church for about 10 minutes, unable to move, tears streaming down his face.

"I was thinking about all the work we had put into that church and all of the members who had built it from scratch and that all of it had gone to waste," he said. "I'm just glad it didn't happen on a Sunday when the membership was in there."

For longtime members of St. John's, there was the pain of seeing the rubble of a building that represents nearly a half-century of labor. Deacon L.J. Caldwell is one of the founding members of the church, which started in 1955 at Pine and Franklin streets in West Baltimore.

"When the highway [the Franklin-Mulberry Corridor] came through there, we had to move," he said.

The congregation purchased property in Pimlico, built a church and moved in on Sept. 10, 1978. It was a point of pride that St. John's had paid off its 30-year mortgage in 15 years.

The church holds worship on Sundays and Bible study on Wednesdays. During the week it tries to reach out to its impoverished neighborhood. It gives away food and clothes, sponsors youth programs and provides counseling to people with personal problems.

"It's a church where all people come in," Caldwell said. "We just try to worship God in spirit and in truth, as the Bible says."

Church officials are trying to arrange an alternate site for services, possibly a nearby recreation center, but were not sure they could secure a place in time for Sunday.

Andrews, a church member for a decade, was prepared to improvise.

"We'll just join hands and pray on this corner," she said.

But even if services have to be canceled this Sunday, Hunter vows that the church won't miss a beat.

"We don't want to let anything stop us because the work of the Lord has to go on, regardless of setbacks. We've been charged by the Lord," he said, his preacher's voice rising.

"God didn't bring us this far to leave us."

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