Church, fire officials agrees on repair needs

For two years, the church members ignored a fire marshal's notice that their building was unfit to occupy. On Christmas Eve, they were caught and booted out in the middle of a service. A few days later, they tried to meet in a tent, but they didn't have a permit for that either.

The 150 members of Glen Burnie Korean Presbyterian Church are still without a permanent place to worship, and they're uncertain when they'll be able to re-enter the sanctuary they had used since 1998.


Their problems stem from an apparent miscommunication with Anne Arundel County fire officials, which they say resulted from their limited knowledge of English and American law.

The congregation has met down the road at St. Alban's Episcopal Church the past two Sundays and will continue to meet there for the foreseeable future, said Rev. Chang Eun Chung. He said he hopes upgrades to the church's sanctuary will be complete by the end of next month, but he said he's not sure how long fire officials will take to inspect the building after the work is complete.


The church must address a long list of problems, including a shortage of exits and a lack of automatic sprinkler systems, before being allowed to use the building, said Division Chief John M. Scholz, spokesman for the county Fire Department.

"But they are trying to do the right thing," Scholz said, adding that he regretted the inconvenience to the congregation.

Chung said he and his fellow church members, who have worshipped at the Glen Burnie site since 1988 and make up one of the county's oldest and largest Korean congregations, are keeping their spirits up.

"I was upset on Christmas, because they stopped our worship," Chung said. "But in the time since, I've been very thankful to the county and all our neighbors who have called or stopped by to offer help."

Baltimore laundromat owner Phil Ahn, who has attended the church for 18 years, said, "The congregation is becoming more strong on the inside."

Church members and county officials agree that after years of miscommunication or no communication, they have agreed regarding improvements to the church.

Scholz said his department is in constant communication with church leaders.

"I think we can find solutions so they can use the space they have and won't have to end up going somewhere else," he said.


The congregation, made up of first- and second-generation Korean immigrants, began meeting at nearby Harundale Presbyterian in 1981, then bought its building, a cramped, century-old chapel on First Avenue, in 1988.

The members commissioned a $1.2 million renovation and expansion in the mid-1990s, but just when the project seemed near completion, the general contractor left town with the church's money, Chung said. So he and the church elders resolved to complete the project themselves, bit by bit. He said they secured permission from county officials to meet in the unfinished building as long as they did not use candles.

Renovations progressed, and all seemed well until 2001, when Chung arrived at the sanctuary one day to find a yellow cease-and-desist notice from the fire marshal taped to the door. It said the sanctuary, a two-floor brick building with a metal roof, was unsafe and warned that no one should enter.

The congregation continued meeting in the building anyway.

"If you stop worshipping, you lose members, and then you lose money and you cannot pay the mortgage or provide teachings for the children," Chung said in explaining why the congregation continued using the building.

He said he and other church members also struggled to understand what they needed to do, because they do not speak English well and are unfamiliar with American building laws.


Ahn said he and other members did not consider the building unsafe and that no one from the fire station two blocks away had come by to warn them.

"If we have that much of a problem, they should not have waited," he said.

Scholz said he cannot imagine how the cease-and-desist order could have been clearer. He added that the county relies on the operators of public facilities not to use unsafe buildings. "The public assumes that when they go into a building, it's safe," he said. "It's the Fire Department's job to uphold that trust."

County officials said they had no idea the church was still meeting in the building until Chung called about a building permit Dec. 24. At that time, fire officials said they again told Chung that he could not hold services in the building. A few hours later, they appeared at the church in the middle of a service and told the clergyman to leave the church. The Christmas trees and tinsel from the celebration remained visible through a window Wednesday.

"We had to be blind to what day it was," Scholz said. "Their safety was paramount in our minds."

Four days later, members raised a large tent outside the church and held a tear-filled service. The next day, they received word from county officials that they could not meet in the tent without a permit.


"At least we finished the service that time," Ahn said, smiling.

Chung and the church elders had little idea where they would meet the next Sunday, but then came the calls from neighbors and pastors at other churches. Soon there were four offers for meeting places.

Ahn said the outpouring touched the parishioners. "They feel like we're not alone," he said.

The church will have to come up with $60,000 or $70,000 to add exits, update its fire-prevention system and secure the county permits it needs to use the building.

"We'll do whatever they ask," Ahn said. "We have no choice."

Chung said that although the church is short on funds, he has no doubt the congregation will come up with the necessary money.


Beaming as he stared at the vacated sanctuary, he said, "Maybe, two or three months after the work is done, we will hold a big celebration."