What took 10 minutes to burn to the ground Dec. 15, 1997, has taken every minute since then to rebuild. But the process of replacing the charred Community Baptist Church in Cedar Heights has meant more than the impersonal whack of hammers, and buckets of nails.
It was a moment for the community to come together. On a recent day, as the effort to rebuild the church neared completion, church members found their spirits as well as their building replenished by the goodwill of others.
Outside the nearly complete wood frame, a 79-year-old Quaker woman swept sawdust and offered moral support to a team of amateur carpenters.
There stood an architect who redesigned the structure in two weeks, under the pressure of an unforgiving county deadline.
On folding chairs under the roof beams, a quartet of women sat singing inspirational, gospel-tinged choruses. "Whatever we need/ We just pray/ And the Lord/ Has made a way/ He always stands/ Right by our side."
"This is the spirit of the church," said Betty Hutchinson, who listened to the singing women as she swept. "The rest are just trappings."
Helen Dale, 66, of Baltimore, has made four or five visits to the church in the last six months and helps with mailings and the coordination of volunteer workers. "It's a response to people across the faith community," said Dale, a member of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore. "We want to show the burning of a church doesn't burn a church."
That echoed the feelings of those actually in the congregation who said the accidental fire has strengthened their spirit and resolve. And this is the fiercely defended view despite--perhaps because of--a drop in membership from 150 to 87, the loss of several thousand dollars of new sound equipment and no official house of worship for nearly two years.
"God has to separate churchgoers from Christians," said Kelvin Murphy, 36, a deacon at the church. Murphy, a Potomac Electric Power Co. vehicle mechanic, said he pushed his company connections to rush the reinstallation of utility poles on the property.
The Rev. Carl E. Keels, 50, the church's pastor for the last seven years, said the fire also had helped the church members in other ways. "There's been a great renewing of faith since the church burned. We've been through the fire. Those that stay are time-tested, and our faith increased as a result of this."
The crisis, and ultimately the effort to find a solution, crossed international boundaries. Much of the manpower used to construct the building has come from the more than 150 people worldwide who volunteered through a group called Quaker Workcamps International, a District-based public charity.
After hearing about the church burning, Harold Confer, 58, director of Quaker Workcamps, recruited volunteers from as far away as Tanzania and Korea. Those volunteers--some trained in construction already, some of whom Confer trains--started in June and paid their own way to spend typically three weeks at the site.
The foreign helpers left "individual blessings," written messages of goodwill, that will be sealed behind the walls when the building is completed, Confer said.
In a written testimonial about her experience, Kate Scott, 17, of New Zealand, said she volunteered to see the United States. She then "learned there are two very important values to live in [a] community, tolerance and initiative."
"But what I take away as my largest gift is the inner-realization and reassurance that people do care and given the opportunity will reach out to others in need--even total strangers," Scott wrote.
Keels said he hopes the building will be finished by the first weekend in December, in time to put on a Christmas show. That, he said, would bring the church full circle; the night the church burned, the Christmas show was being rehearsed. The show later was put on at the nearby Chapel Oaks Volunteer Fire Department.
Since the fire, the remaining congregants have used the Chapel Oaks facility for Sunday sermons and Tuesday night Bible studies.
The fire started when children playing near an old radiator dislodged one of its natural gas pipes, said Capt. Chauncey Bowers, of the Prince George's County fire department.
Courtney McKissic, 30, the church's minister of music, said several children were rehearsing the Christmas play in front of the building that night. McKissic, who was at a separate meeting in the back of the building, said he heard screams about 8:15 p.m.
He said some children knocked into an ancient radiator at the front of the 70-year-old building. With flames too strong to extinguish easily, the people exited through the church's back door, and no one was injured.
The fire department arrived in minutes. But when firefighters opened the front door, the rush of oxygen fed the fire, and the building was lost.
The fire caused $150,000 in damage, Keels said. The only thing to survive was a painting of the Last Supper.
One of the biggest problems church members faced after the fire was getting approval to rebuild the church. The building sat on three-quarters of an acre, and county regulations adopted in 1993 state that churches on less than two acres are illegal, said Garland H. Stillwell, a zoning lawyer in Greenbelt who helped the church through the permitting process.
The law also said the church had only a year from the accident to get grandfathered past the acreage regulations; when the church came to Stillwell in November 1998, there was only a month to accomplish what can take half a year.
Keels said it took that long to understand county regulations and find Stillwell's firm, Linowes & Blocher LLP.
"It was a Herculean task" to meet the county deadline, said Stillwell, who formerly worked for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Officials with the county's planning and environmental departments said Linowes & Blocher made them aware of the church's need for immediate help. The key to the fast turnaround, the officials said, was the church attorneys' familiarity with the county regulations.
The law firm put the church in touch with an architect, Odis Johnson, who had less than two weeks to assemble a design with another zoning caveat--the new building had to use the exact floor area as the old church.
Johnson, a principal architect with the Clinton firm Design Construction Management Team Inc., put together a chalet-like model with a steep roof in the back and traditional church dormers on the side and front. The result does not look like the little, boxy country church it was, Johnson said, adding, "I wanted to do something modern and different."
Keels said the church has spent more than $200,000 to pay for building materials, including $150,000 from the church treasury and $50,000 in donations worldwide. "We've run out of money twice already," he said.
But a bit of luck came by way of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Suitland. The Mormons were refurbishing their Suitland office and gave Community Baptist their old pews, a piano, lighting fixtures, blackboards and chairs, said Spencer G. Blackburn, the president of Mormon congregations in Southern Maryland. Those materials, worth an estimated $50,000, are in storage until the new Baptist church opens.
Yvonne McKissic, 59, an associate minister at Community Baptist, said she expects the church will rebuild slowly, both in terms of membership and its actual structure. That means no fancy electronics for a while, even if people still are holding out hope.
"God has blessed us this far," she said. "We're just trusting God to get us the best system we can."
CAPTION: Above, framing bears the mark of the builders. At left, volunteers prepare for the floor. At right, the exterior of the sanctuary is almost complete.
CAPTION: The Rev. Carl E. Keels, pastor of Community Baptist Church, leads members in a blessing during construction.
CAPTION: Volunteers help with the rebuilding of Community Baptist Church.
CAPTION: The exterior of the new Community Baptist Church, assembled by Quaker Workcamps International volunteers, is nearly finished. The interior of the Cedar Heights church is to be done with the help of volunteers from Africa.
CAPTION: During rebuilding, services were at Chapel Oaks Volunteer Fire Department.
CAPTION: Quaker Workcamps International volunteers Elena Yanushko, of Minsk, Belarus, and Frank Sharp, of New Britain, Pa., work on the new building.