Church at 'ground zero' in Baltimore riots keeps the faith

Church came back after 1987 fire destroyed it

Mary Jackson was watching CNN when the rioting broke out in West Baltimore last Monday, and she couldn't take her eyes off the screen.

She saw looters torch the CVS store at West North and Pennsylvania avenues. They looted a beauty mart and a check-cashing business.

Next in line, she saw, was her house of worship, Fulton Baptist Church.

"I prayed it wouldn't be destroyed again," she said.

The mob bypassed the 111-year-old building and moved on, a "miracle" Jones and 150 others celebrated Sunday at a buoyant worship service, the first at Fulton since the riots over the death of Freddie Gray transfixed an international TV audience.

"This church is at ground zero," the church's head pastor, the Rev. Julian Rivera, roared, his voice soaring as the congregation cheered. "If the devil had his way, we wouldn't be here today!

"How grateful we are that God spared our church."

It was one of several worship services of note to be held in Baltimore on Sunday, a day Gov. Larry Hogan declared "a day of peace and prayer."

Hogan joined about 250 people at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Sandtown-Winchester, where Archbishop William E. Lori presided, and later in the day, Rep. Elijah Cummings addressed an afternoon service at Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.

Hogan mentioned several of the "overarching" societal problems the Gray case brought into the open.

"But today we're not going to solve that," he said. "Today, we're about having peace in the city."

Southern Baptist is the church that sponsored the Mary Harvin Transformation Center, the senior apartment center that was destroyed by a fire during the Monday riots.

"We have to be the man in the mirror and the woman in the mirror" if we want to rebuild, Cummings told the congregation, to an outburst of applause. "Our children are our future."

And at 1630 W. North Ave., Fulton's deacons prayed, members sang stirring gospel and traded hugs, and a 21/2-hour service hit an emotional pitch when Rivera exhorted the house to thank God for preserving their building and extending their mission of service.

"I feel the power of his mercy. You ought to erupt with crazy, off-the-chain 'hallelujahs,' 'thank yous,' and 'amens,'" the pastor said at one point, and the congregation obliged.

Over the past week, Rivera said, he and his flock have had to remain strong as protests swirled outside the front door, SWAT teams and National Guard units set up shop in the parking lot behind the church, and every other building within three blocks sustained at least some physical damage.

The events reminded longtime members of the toughest moments in Fulton's long history, including a fire that gutted the place in 1987 and left it closed for five years.

They've also called to mind the strength it summoned to overcome them.

When it was founded in 1904, senior members say, Fulton Baptist was the first black church on North Avenue.

It was never the biggest congregation in the area — today it has 350 members — but it developed a core membership of families so devoted to each other and the community that it acquired a nickname it has never lost: "The Friendly Church On The Corner."

Only six pastors have run the place, including its founding minister, Rev. Samuel D. Ward, its longest-serving, the Rev. B. Franklin Jackson (1927-1967), and Rivera, who began four years ago and has impressed the congregation, many said, with his energy, preaching power and vision.

Senior members say they'll never forget the Baltimore riots of 1968, which left businesses up and down North Avenue looted and destroyed.

"I was 12 then, and I remember my father driving me around to see all the damage," said Thomas Alexander, 59, a deacon. "I was horrified. I didn't like what [the rioters] were doing then any more than I like what they're doing today."

Joyce Gillard, a 55-year member, said the neighborhood began to deteriorate after that, with businesses closed and less friendly neighbors moving in.

But the church was unharmed — which is better than it fared 19 years later.

Mary Jones, 78, a deaconess, remembers the 1987 fire as though it were yesterday.

Someone drove past in the middle of night, she said, and threw a Molotov cocktail through a window. The building was gutted before members even heard the news.

Insurance would cover only some of the rebuilding costs. For five years, as the charred place stood empty, members roamed from church to church to attend services. The arsonist was never found.

Members say it was devastating — "like losing a loved one," in the words of John Cannon, 60 — and some feared the assailant might come back, which left them wary of rebuilding.

A core few disagreed. Jones, Gillard, Valarie Dean, Sherl Woodland and others had grown up in the church, and vowed not to give in.

They held car washes, bake sales and other fundraisers. Members kept tithing. Other churches scrimped and donated. And by 1992, Fulton was back up and running, complete with an all-new interior within the old stone walls.

"This was our church," Jones said after Sunday's service. "We weren't going anywhere."

Rivera, a native New Yorker who worked for years at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, took over as pastor in April 2011.

Recognizable by his shaved head, scholarly glasses and calm demeanor, he has partnered with various nonprofits to help Fulton support schools and senior centers, distribute diapers and detergent in the neighborhood and continue a tradition of spontaneous free cookouts on the sidewalk.

"I come here because my pastor has a vision," said Cannon, who lives in East Baltimore.

Midway through his sermon, Rivera said he believes God has decided he's not through with a church that remains "a beacon of hope" in a neighborhood plagued by the kinds of ills the Gray case has laid bare, from poverty, crime and violence to mistrust between the community and police.

If the church reaches deep and comes together, he insisted, it can help create the kind of healing environment Baltimore needs right now.

"The people who had the courage in 1987 to come back to this same place — if anybody can speak to what faith can do, it ought to be us," he said.

And finally, he told the story of what really happened Monday as Fulton's fate hung in the balance.

A deacon at a sister church, 41-year-old Kevin Wilder, had followed a hunch to come to the area, Rivera said. On arriving, he saw the angry crowd burn the CVS, ransack the other stores and head toward Fulton.

Wilder ran over, Rivera said, stood at the door and told them to hold their fire.

The looters paused a moment and moved on.

The pastor called Wilder, a slender, bespectacled man, to the front and embraced him as the congregation cheered. When the roars died down, Wilder insisted he's no hero.

"It was nothing but God almighty," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell Erin Cox, Chris Kaltenbach, Lauren Loricchio, Mark Puente and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°