By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008
The Meridian Hill Baptist Church is not just the shell of a building on 16th Street in Northwest Washington that was ravaged last week by one of the worst fires the District has seen in years.
"It is the body of the believers," said the Rev. Calvin E. Cage Sr., the church's pastor, as his congregation sang yesterday of its faith in God in its temporary home in Prince George's County.
He'll fix it for you, just for you.
He'll know just what to do.
So whenever you pray,
Let the Lord have his way.
And I know he will fix it, just for you.
The building in Mount Pleasant, said to be more than 100 years old, is boarded up, its stained-glass windows and roof secured. The 400-member church shared its back wall with a four-story apartment building that was largely destroyed Thursday morning in the five-alarm fire. Nearly 200 residents lost their homes, and the fire also displaced several congregations and community organizations that used the church.
Many of the congregation's services, religious and social, were transferred to a sister church, the Cathedral of Christ in Chapel Oaks, in Prince George's near the District's northeast boundary. Cage is also pastor there. The two congregations regularly work together but usually worship separately.
Yesterday, the sanctuary of Cathedral of Christ, on Sheriff Road, was filled with worshipers from the District and Maryland. Classrooms were overflowing during the morning's Bible study.
"Fire can't take it away. Rain can't drown it," the Rev. George Parks Jr., Meridian Hill's assistant pastor, said as he paced back and forth in the pulpit. "It is something way down on the inside," Parks said to nearly a quarter of the Meridian Hill congregation who had come to the suburbs for the service.
Wagging his finger, Parks instructed everyone to look at the person sitting beside them and say, "Neighbor, there is no religion in real estate." The members happily obliged. "Neighbor, we haven't finished yet," he said. The members echoed him, then began clapping their hands and shouting "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!"
The Meridian Hill church began 80 years ago in a storefront on Champlain Street in Northwest. In 1931, it moved to Kalorama Road, where members built a larger structure. The church relocated to 3146 16th St. in 1970. It bought the Sheriff Road property in 1998 to add to the ministry, said Cage, who has been with the church for 18 years.
Mattie Jones, a 40-year member of Meridian Hill, said she was saddened to hear Thursday's news. But being able to attend Sunday's service filled her with joy.
Referring to the 1998 purchase, Jones, 74, said, "It is all the Lord's [doing], and we didn't even know it."
Meridian Hill sponsored youth programs, fed and clothed the homeless, and served the community in countless other ways, Cage said. Members opened the doors to other congregations that could not afford their own space, including Ethiopian and Spanish congregations, Cage said. There was an Ethiopian community center upstairs and a Catholic Charities homeless shelter in the basement.
Mason L. Jackson said she walked to both the Kalorama Road and 16th Street churches for services for many years. She had her son drive her to Maryland yesterday, despite the carpools and vans organized by the church's transportation ministry.
"Well, I go to church every Sunday," said Jackson, a church trustee, food bank volunteer and choir member. "There was no point in me sitting home today when we still have a place to worship."
Jackson described the church as "one big family" with many memories, such as summer picnics and its many generations growing up. The church has never had to deal with such a situation before, but she didn't think it would be hard.
"We are just a working bunch of people," she said. "Whatever the task is, we do."
And so they pray. They pray for the insurance agent to make a fair assessment. They pray the church will be able to meet its obligations.
"I'm also praying the city moves with the same kind of expediency that they moved for the farmers market," said Cage, referring to Eastern Market, severely damaged by a fire last year. His words were met with many "Amens!" The pastor continued, "If a place where you get physical food is important, certainly the place where you get spiritual food is. . . ."
Cage was drowned out by members of his congregation, who had jumped to their feet to clap and shout more praises.
To find out about the church's reconstruction fund, call 301-341-4901.