A decade ago, Grace Brethren Church leaders thought hard about moving out of the county.
After all, they reasoned, the church in Temple Hills was inadequate for the congregation. And many of the church's mostly white congregants were migrating out of Prince George's.
But unlike some other predominantly white congregations, Grace Brethren Church chose to remain in Prince George's. And recently, the church and its 400-member congregation dedicated a new, $2 million sanctuary, fellowship hall and baptismal pool.
"We just honestly feel committed to staying in this community and finishing the job," Senior Pastor Howard Mayes said. "We have watched the community change."
The church has attracted many African American members in recent years who are pulled by the strict tenets of the Brethren theology and are interested in the private school. The church operates the facility for kindergarten through high school in the former Surrattsville Junior High in Clinton next to its new church building. There are two Brethren schools in the county, the Clinton school and Lanham Christian School, which is operated by Grace Brethren Church of Lanham.
"We are just trying to be the body of Christ," Mayes said.
At a dedication ceremony Nov. 7 and a group baptism this weekend, the church's multicultural membership was evident.
"People from all races are loved and fully accepted at our church," said Mayes, who became pastor of Grace Brethren Church in 1992. Mayes succeeded James Dixon, who organized the church more than three decades ago.
In a letter that was read during the service, Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) praised Grace Brethren leaders for remaining in the county, citing the church as an "attractive center for worship and education."
The term "Brethren" refers to several Christian groups of common origin that date to the 1700s, in a movement that began in Germany. The early believers were called "Dunkers" because they believe in the practice of baptism by total immersion.
Grace Brethren is part of Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, a group of 2,000 churches headquartered in Winona Lake, Ind. In the Washington area, there are five other congregations that are part of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren.
"We have been historically known for the literal interpretation of scripture and application of salvation by faith through Jesus Christ," Mayes said.
Ted Gean, who was in charge of the church's building projects, said that since Grace Brethren first purchased the old school in 1984 and began to make extensive renovations, the value of the church property has gone from $1 million to $17 million. He said that today, the 25-acre campus includes 34 classrooms, two gyms, an elementary and high school.
"The children of Grace Brethren are really excited to worship in this newly complete sanctuary," said Collin Savage, 10, an African American child, who, with Gail Smith, 17, who is white, spoke on behalf of the students who attend Grace Brethren School.
"The church has done more than raise a steeple, it has raised me," said Smith, a senior at Grace Brethren.
The Grace Brethren Church of Greater Washington, the forerunner of the Clinton and Lanham churches, began in 1962 with 86 members under the leadership of Pastor James Dixon. The church first met in Forestville Elementary School. In 1965, after worshiping at several other locations, the church purchased 4.5 acres and built a new church building at 5000 St. Barnabas Rd. Eventually, two congregations were formed.
Despite the church's strong emphasis on education and programs tailored for young people, seniors such as Frank and Lydia Sattler of Clinton enjoy worshiping at the congregation that has been a part of their lives for decades.
"My wife taught piano at Grace Brethren for many years and my daughter graduated from the school," said Frank Sattler, who sings in the choir.
"The entire faculty has always been committed to a high quality education, Bible study and genuine love for all children," said Lydia Sattler, who taught at the school for 20 years. She said it was always a family affair, recalling that Dorothy Dixon, wife of the church's founder James Dixon, used to drive the bus to bring the children to the school.
In the 1700s, church founder Alexander Mack baptized his followers in a stream by submerging them face down three times.
On Sunday, 22 people were baptized this way.
"We believe that Christian baptism is step of obedience in Jesus Christ and also presents a fitting opportunity to witness ones faith before others," Mayes said. "We base our practice on Matthew 28:19 to go into all the world to preach the gospel and to baptize."
A week earlier, during the dedication service, the church members sang, "The church is one foundation, is Jesus Christ our Lord, she is his new creation by water and the word."
David Knight, the church's associate pastor, concluded the service with a prayer in which he told God, "Our Heavenly Father, we have looked forward to this day for a long time."
CAPTION: Above, Fred Cresce runs the 40-channel sound board and tape console at Grace Brethren Church. At left, David Knight, associated pastor, talks with Stephanie Myers, left, and Kristin Taylor.