What began in 1826 as a log cabin church for about 50 freed slaves in Sandy Spring has evolved, 155 years later, into a modern brick building with stained-glass windows and a suburband congregation of more than 300 people.
The land on which the church stands, deeded to the blacks for 10 cents by white Quaker friends in 1822, made it possible for the freed slaves to assemble in their own sanctuary for worship and education -- a long-held dream. a
The Sharp Street United Methodist Church in Sandy Spring was the first independent black church organized in Montgomery County, according to the Montgomery County Historical Society.
While there is no Sharp Street in Sandy Spring, members of the church believe it was named after the Sharp Street Church in Baltimore, a symbol of freedom to the members of the original Sandy Spring congregation.
During that era, according to Leslie Gains, historian of the Sandy Spring church, Maryland law prohibited any assembly of blacks without white suerpvision, a ban designed to discourage abolitionist activities. Blacks in Annapolis and Baltimore, however, could assemble freely because the state law did not apply in these cities, he said.
In 1822, three-fourths of an acre was deeded to the blacks by James P. Stabler, a Quaker, with the stipulation that it be used for a church or school. In accordance with the law, the blacks received the site with Quakers William Thomas and Basil Brooke serving as trustees responsible for monitoring any assemblies.
After a few years, the Sandy Spring blacks felt they needed a cemetery of their own. Again they appealed to their Quaker friends, and in May, 1854, land adjacent to the church was deeded to church members for use as a burial ground.
In 1888, the congregation paid $500 for two acres in nearby Ashton and built a parsonage that is still the residence of the church's ministers.
The original log cabin church burned in 1922 and was replaced with a one-story frame building in 1924. Classes in reading, writing and arithmetic were soon started, along with one vocational course: home economics. While the new church was under construction, both school and church activities took place in the Odd Fellows Hall in Sandy Spring.
The ensuing years have brought many changes to the Sandy Spring community, and Sharp Street is no longer a family church where everyone is related. In the past 10 years there has been an influx of new members, with 226 persons joining the congregation. Deaths and transfers have reduced the current membership to 318, however.
Sandy Spring remains the home of a large Quaker school and meeting house. There are only occasional contacts between Quakers and Methodists. In recent years, Sandy Spring blacks and Quakers have come together for meetings on local issues involving low-income housing and assistance to black families in refurbishing mobile homes, said Coursey. Also, the Quakers have been invited to anniversary gatherings of the Sharp Street Church, and black students have been offered partial scholarships to the Sandy Spring Friends School.
"History is not that continuous," said the Rev. John Coursey, who until recently was pastor of the church. "In 1981, there are people who don't even know the Quakers were involved (with the establishment of the church). Blacks are doing their thing now. The are self-sustained, homeowners, and have kids going to college. But back then there was a need for that paternalistic relationship because blacks were not self-sustaining. . . ."
The church's new members have not changed the character of the church or its people, according to Gains, who has been a member for 40 years.
"The new people who have come in have blended into the customs of Sharp Street, instead of bringing in new customs," Gains said. "With new people coming in, new ideas come in, but they are integrated in such a way that it doesn't create any problems at all."
What has happened, said church member James C. Offord, is that the church has become modernized. It is operated in a more business-like manner because it has a "more educated" congregation, but the warmth and friendliness of the people of Sandy Spring are still evident.
Sharp Street shows great interest in its young people. This was a major attraction to Warren Van Hook of Silver Spring, who joined the church with his wife Cora three years ago, after "looking around in the area.
"We were just driving and we saw it and dropped by," Van Hook said. "We decided to join because we were impressed with the minister. Then we found out that the people were friendly. It just grew on us."
The church sponsors religious retreats for youths and makes cash awards to its college-bound high school graduates. In summer there are "Wonderful Wednesday" field trips throughout the Washington metropolitan area.
"These trips expose the kids to things they won't be exposed to at home," Van Hook said. "You'd be surprised how many children in these areas have not even gone on a subway."
Newcomers are so numerous now that they no longer feel like outsiders, says Gains. "There's not a distinction made now as years ago," he explains. "When everybody knew everybody else in the town if you weren't a primary citizen (born in Sandy Spring), it may have been hard to establish yourself."
Although in recent years many natives hve left the community to pursue careers and educations, some have maintained close ties with their old home church. One of these is Offord. The 54-year-old businessman, who was born in Sandy Spring, moved to Washington in 1959 and then to Colesville in 1967. Now married and the father of two, Offord says he has visited other churches but always comes home to Sharp Street.
"It's our roots," he says, "And it's the spirtual hub of my life. My life has always been Sandy Spring, even when I moved away to Washington. I'll always come back, I'll be buried here."
Blondie Awkard, who lives in Cloverly, Md., has been a member for 10 years. Her husband George is a native of Sandy Spring. She says the atmosphere reminds her of her native North Carolina.
"The governing bodies of Montgomery County respect members here in the church," she says. "The church has a lot of history here. Many of the outstnding members here are prominent citizens of the community."
Bertha J. Bishop, 85, was 13 when she joined the curch 72 years ago.
"We used to have a Children's Day," Bishop recalled. "And every (girl) would have on a white dress with pink or blue. We would march around the churchyard singing, go in the church, and each of us would recite little poems."
Bishop was active with the Ladies Aid church auxillary and played organ for the church choir for 50 years. She raised a son, the Rev. William E. Bishop, now an employe relations counselor with the D.C. Police Department. "He came up in the church," Bishop said. "When I played the organ, he'd be in a robe, at 2 to 3 years old, and with me."
Bishop remains active in organizing church anniversary and homecoming gatherings, which attract members from across the country. "It's a family reunion. We just all have a great time. Everybody enjoys it."
Bishop takes pride in Sandy Spring's tradition of freedom, which dates back to the founding of the church. "There has never been slavery here," she says. "My great-grandfather was never a slave. So blacks had a chance."
On Sunday, June 28, the Rev. Coursey gave his farewell sermon and left Sharp Street for a new assignment with the McKendree United Methodist Church at 3309 South Dakota Ave. NE.
Calvin Williams, a church lay leader, greeted the new minister, the Rev. Maurice S. Moore, with these words:
"Don't be bound by old folks or old ambitions. God will give you the power to overrule all enemies."
Moore replied, "I look forward to a glorious ministry here."
Moore said he was impressed with attendance on his first Sunday, and praised the choir. "Music plays a very important role, particularly in the black church."
Moore, a native of Baltimore who grew up in the Sharp Street Church there, said of his new pastorate, "It feels like a small-town church to me. I like small-town ministries because the people are more settled and less transient."
Coursey had been pastor at Sharp Street for seven years. "It was an opportunity to truly serve God and black people," he reflected. "And (to serve) black people who stand on such black strength and spirtually.
"History is the basis on which we look back with confidence. One of the ways to over come the negative self images is to share with our young our past, so that they can develop on strong concepts and develop a sense of directon," Coursey said.
"It's hard to know where you want to go when you don't know where you came from."