In the pulpit where the Rev. Thomas L. Gross used to preach, his friend and follower, the Rev. Charles Mellion, began a sermon, haltingly, searching for the proper words.
To comfort the mourning congregation of True Gospel Tabernacle Baptist Church yesterday, Mellion drew parallels between the death of Gross, who was shot and killed in an alley Tuesday, and the death of Moses.
"Moses brought God's people to the point where God wanted them to be," said Mellion. "When they got to the river Jordan, one man wasn't there -- Moses. God chose another man, Joshua.
"This morning, we stand at the river Jordan," the minister intoned.
"Praise God!" a woman proclaimed.
"Hallelujah!" shouted another.
"Our leader has gone home," Mellion said, his voice growing louder. "He had to start a church and bring in members, one by one. He did his job well."
Now, he said, it is up to Gross's followers to carry on what their pastor began.
The previous Sunday, Gross, founder of the Southeast church, preached on trusting in God, then baptized a young boy.
On Tuesday night, Gross, 48, was found slumped over the steering wheel of his car with a single gunshot wound in his head. Police have said that he was the victim of an apparent robbery attempt.
"We don't know who the young man or woman is who pulled the trigger, but God will forgive them too," Mellion told the congregation. Those in the drug scene, he added, have "something missing in their hearts, an empty space only God can fill."
"If the reverend had died of a heart attack or high blood pressure, we would have just said, 'He's gone home,' " the minister said. "God knows what he was doing. Sometimes we live in a fantasy world, where we forget that we never know when we will leave, or how."
During the two-hour service, Scriptures, prayers and songs were used to offer healing and hope. The Thomas Gross Ensemble, resplendent in robes with "TGE" stitched on the shoulders, sang, "When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be." After praying at the altar, people overwhelmed with emotion cried out, filling the church with one long wail.
Mellion said Gross, who started True Gospel 17 years ago, "was always talking about a steeple. He didn't know it was God putting a crown on his work."
The steeple, a white tower with blue tinted panes, was erected last month and now stands as a small but stunning beacon on busy Wheeler Road, a street peppered with apartments and office building.
Gross began the church in a Langley Park apartment building. As new members joined, the group rented a larger building on Kennedy Street in Northwest. The church continued to grow and the congregation purchased its current home at 4201 Wheeler Rd. SE.
Yesterday, sunlight filtered through the lavender- and rose-colored stained-glass windows installed two years ago. On the programs passed out by ushers was the motto, "The Church Where Everybody Is Somebody."
Though the church has grown to include 300 active members, Gross continued his outreach because he loved talking to strangers about God, members of the church said.
After the service, a group of longtime members recalled how he delighted in preaching on street corners or in the midst of any crowd, no matter where. "He said he was on a mission for Christ," said Deaconess Nancy Mellion.
"It's hard to accept his death, because he was so animated. He reached out to everybody," Deacon Willie Ogburn said.
Gross "would go out and preach wherever people were," said Deacon Charles Ogburn, Willie Ogburn's brother. "He'd go to an amusement park, a restaurant . . . . "
"We went to see a Bullets game and he preached," Willie Ogburn added.
True Gospel will continue, leaders said. "We're going to carry on because the reverend already taught us what to do," Charles Ogburn explained. "When he went on vacation, he would explain to us what to do . . . . We're going on."