Elsie Thomas settles into the fourth pew, right-hand side of the old country church, waiting as if the others will come walking down the road singing like they used to on a pleasant Sunday morning.
Her mother would have been in the third pew in the middle, she says. Over there would sit Miss Clara and Miss Myrtle, with Cousin John at the piano, and the church bell, silent now these many years, pealing all the way up to the cemetery near home.
But the congregation is no more, and the historic black enclave of Martinsburg, with the Warren Methodist Episcopal Church as its heart, is fading toward extinction.
Martinsburg, one of a dozen or more black communities that grew up in Montgomery County, once served as a refuge from the harsh racism of segregated rural Maryland. It was an era when many of the town's blacks lacked cars, electricity and running water, when they knew better than to linger while shopping in Poolesville, and when Cousin Obie ferried laborers and domestics each day in his van to the bus lines in Rockville.
Over the years, Martinsburg's 40 or so black households dwindled to fewer than a dozen. Young people left for better jobs. New houses could not be built because the soil was poor for septic systems. There were new communities where African Americans could live in comfort.
And one by one the old folks were borne up the hill to the rickety wooden sign that reads "Cemetery," their homes abandoned and left to crumble.
As much of the county is exploding with new communities filled with newcomers--immigrants and ex-urbanites--places like Martinsburg have fallen by the wayside.
As the town died, the Warren congregation merged five years ago with nearby Mount Zion United Methodist Church near Barnesville.
These days it is mostly the ghosts of the departed who greet Elsie Thomas as she pulls open the church's ancient double doors. On this night, Thomas is alone in her oak pew in Warren Methodist Episcopal. The air is cold and musty. And though the broad Bible on the pulpit is open to Thomas's mother's favorite psalm, Thomas's parents and most of the church's African American congregants rest beneath the headstones among the briers up the hill.
Thomas, 59, a county school teaching assistant who was born and raised in Martinsburg, who fetched kerosene for her family's lamps and hauled water for its washtub, can see and hear them yet. She wants others to, as well.
Ever since the merger left the 96-year-old complex standing empty, Thomas has tended the memory of the place. She has mowed the lawn, paid to have a special commemorative sign erected, painted, dusted, tidied, and now is spearheading the effort to save the church and its dilapidated community center, called Loving Charity Hall.
"When I open this door, it's like, 'Thank you, Lord,' " Thomas said as of the small white building just west of Poolesville, where she now lives.
"It's not open that often. It just gives me a great feeling. The minute I see those doors come open, it's like, ahhhh," she said, as if breathing for the place. "Hallelujah. . . . It's open one more time."
Here, as Elsie Bell, she was read into church membership at the age of 17.
Here she was praying that terrible Saturday in 1969 when her husband, William--one of three Thomas brothers married to three Bell sisters--was injured in an accident.
He'd been helping a motorist change a tire when someone plowed into the car. He suffered a brain injury, was in a coma for three months, and now, 30 years later, is still not the same.
Here, too, on Sundays came the people of Martinsburg-- descendants of slaves and free blacks--from their homes and small farms scattered around the Whites Ferry road on the way to the Potomac River and Virginia. You could hear the church bell from her house, a mile or so away, on the unnamed gravel road that led to the cemetery, she said.
And you could hear the people singing, "Jesus, keep me near the cross," as they walked down the road from sections of Martinsburg.
They'd crowd beneath the five-paneled board ceiling before the red, white and blue painting of "The Gospel Train," done in 1948 by Brother Lemuel Graham, and they would sing, "The gospel train is coming, coming around the bend . . . "
"No one was in a rush to go home," Thomas said. "We were here . . . like one big family."
According to Thomas and several historians, Martinsburg sprang up in the days before the Civil War around a store, a post office and a blacksmith near a tract of land called John's Delight. Although it had white residents, a thriving community of free blacks also coalesced.
In 1876, the single acre of church land was purchased for $50 by a group of church trustees, including one Isaac P. Warren, for whom it would thence be named. The original church building was hauled on rollers by draft animals from a site on the remote cemetery hill to its current site on the main road.
In 1903, the current building was erected, about the same time as a school for the congregation's children and the two-story clapboard Loving Charity Hall, a kind of community center and burial society for Martinsburg's blacks.
The school was replaced by segregated schools built elsewhere in the county, which Thomas attended, but she still remembers as a young girl watching movies in the first-floor auditorium of the old hall.
The church and the school, which had been transformed into a kitchen-dining hall, remained relatively intact. But Loving Charity Hall, though still housing the church's moldering maypole, became gray and decrepit with years and slipped toward collapse.
Last month, the Montgomery County Historical Society placed the church and the hall on its list of 10 most endangered sites, saying Warren was the last such historic black complex where a church, school and hall survived.
For Thomas, it is more personal than that. "Something draws me," she said.
One October evening, as crickets sang and clouds scudded across the night sky, the lights in the six Gothic windows made Warren look alive again, as if Miss Clara, Miss Myrtle, Cousin John and all the others were inside ready to begin.
"I don't want to close this door," Thomas said, as she paused on the steps after switching off the lights. "It's like closing a casket."
Inside the darkened church, though, still open on the pulpit, was Psalm 27, her mother's favorite: "For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion . . . therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy."
CAPTION: Elsie Thomas and her niece Cierra Love, 8, walk to Loving Charity Hall in Martinsburg, built in 1903 along with a school and remodeled church.
CAPTION: Thomas and her niece read the Bible at Warren Methodist Episcopal Church, which Thomas hopes to preserve.
CAPTION: Cierra Love, 8, left, waits as her aunt, Elsie Thomas, right, talks with Yvonne Copeland at the historic church.