The congregation of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Druid Hill Avenue will hold Sunday services at Pier Six Pavilion at the Inner Harbor this weekend after a two-alarm fire damaged the church's steeple Wednesday night.

The fire, which officials are blaming on a lightning strike, didn't spread beyond the steeple and bell tower, Fire Department spokesman Chief Kevin Cartwright said, but the church's interior was damaged by water. The church was vacant at the time, and no one was injured.

Tonya Cook, who moved in a few doors down from the church just a month ago, said she was sleeping about 11 p.m. Wednesday when a booming noise woke her up.

"I was like, 'Was that thunder?' And I came outside, and the church was just on fire," she said. "It was really terrible." The steeple looked as if it was going to topple, so she grabbed her granddaughter and hurried out of harm's way.

The tower stayed standing, jutting more than 150 feet into the air, but the blaze burned through the shingles, exposing the steeple's metal beams and turning the tower's green trim to a rusty red.

City workers picked up stray shingles Thursday morning and the afternoon sun shown through the damaged steeple to a newly cleaned sidewalk. Yellow tape and orange cones cordoned off the area, but the 1300 block of Druid Hill Ave. was hardly empty.

Leon Peters, Baltimore's general superintendent of building inspection, negotiated with representatives of a crane company over the removal of the upper tier of the damaged steeple. The church's pastor, the Rev. Frank Reid III, was on the scene trying to arrange a Friday night meeting.

"Will you all get the word out for me?" he asked the approximately 15 members of the congregation who gathered on the street. "Right now the power's off so we can't do all the things we normally do from the church, so we have to rely on you all. OK?"

He took a long breath and looked out at the small, somber crowd. "Whew, Jesus."

Charles Pettyjohn, 60, the church's chief business officer who had been helping out, trying to keep passers-by out of the restricted area, said he's staying positive.

"It was a blessing," said Pettyjohn, who has been a member of the congregation for 23 years. He pointed to a large, intact poster spanning across the front of the church that read "30 days of powerful praise and worship." The annual event, in which the congregation gathers every night in June to listen to guest preachers, had just concluded.

It wasn't just lucky, Reid said. For him, the fire carried a message. "This is 150 feet in the air, and it will make you look up," he said of the church's steeple. "And that's what people need today. They need to look up. Not stay down and stay depressed, but look up. When bad things happen, look up in spite of the difficulties."

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