The church pews have been toppled, the organ overturned, and above the altar, from the blackened rafters of the ceiling, coiled wires and yellow insulation were drooping yesterday like languid, sleeping snakes.

Still, the cross is hanging.

It's Plexiglas and gold-laminated and lights up from within, and it appeared as a vision from God to the First Agape AME Zion Church parishioner who, a few months ago, constructed it.

And still it hangs, in the center of the sanctuary, mostly intact and only slightly puckered from the fire that, on the evening of Ash Wednesday, raged through the 104-year-old Cabin John church, causing $500,000 in damage and requiring 85 firefighters to put it out.

Yesterday, stunned parishioners and stalwart church officials gathered to see for themselves the damage caused by a faulty, oil-fed furnace -- a furnace the church was ready to replace with gas. At the edge of the front lawn, on Seven Locks Road right next to the Capital Beltway overpass, stripes of blue Pepco spray paint and four blue flags perched on the dead grass, awaiting officials' installation of a gas line.

"I couldn't go in. It's too many memories," 15-year church member Edna Kinslow, 66, said yesterday morning as she stood outside the small white building, which was first constructed in 1898 and became a place of worship more than a century ago. It was built on land owned by a freed slave, Sarah Gibson, who donated some of her property for a church and school for blacks.

"I used to cook in the kitchen, and that's where [the fire] started," Kinslow continued, shaking her head. "It's too many memories."

But the kitchen hadn't existed there for a while. And a dwindling and aging population of Gibson Grove AME Zion Church meant fewer and fewer parishioners were walking up the 24 steps to the sanctuary every Sunday.

So AME Zion officials decided a year ago to turn the clapboard church over to First Agape and its missionary-style AME Zion pastor, the Rev. Edgar Bankhead, who had led his congregation through a nomadic series of rooms at county schools and parks and recreation buildings.

A year ago, Bankhead moved into the moldy, mildewing and leaky-roofed church and began plans to renovate. Though only 75 to 80 people were in his congregation, and even fewer came to church every Sunday, he pushed tithing and offerings, in the name of fixing up the church.

"It was all done on faith," said Bankhead's son, Edgar Jr., as he waited for his father to finish talking with the insurance company and make his way down to the church from his home in Burtonsville.

As the money came in, the church tore out the drywall and insulation, redid the floors, laid new burgundy carpet, put on a new roof, hung etched-glass chandeliers, replaced the front steps and replaced the exterior siding.

By yesterday morning, as congregants gathered on the steps, the front doors were slashed with violent hatchet marks, where firefighters had fought their way into the building.

People had to yell over the noise that emergency services workers made pulling out screens and hammering boards over the windows.

Inside, the church sanctuary was a wet, muddy paste of ash and water. The burgundy carpet was destroyed, and gaping holes had burned through the floors.

A woman in a black wool coat, leather gloves and small, porcelain-rose earrings walked up gingerly, shyly approaching the pastor's son.

"I'm just a neighbor," Joyce Darilek said, pulling off her gloves and reaching out her hand.

"I was so upset when I heard about the fire last night, and I was wondering if there was anything I could do."

She joined a slow stream of strangers who stopped by yesterday. Two pastors came early to offer their churches for Agape's Sunday service this week. Another man, a 63-year resident of Bethesda who loved to spot the old church from the Beltway when he drove toward the Potomac River and Virginia, showed up in a Maker's Mark denim jacket and introduced himself as "Pat Flaherty . . . I thought I'd come by and write you a check." It wouldn't be a big check, he said, but "you've got to take care of your neighbors. Who do I make this out to?"

Later, Flaherty added that the clapboard church, which reminds him of the old days, when he was a boy and River Road and MacArthur Boulevard were still far, far out in the country, is "one of the few places in the Bethesda area that are unique to the area."

And as the waves of visitors ebbed and flowed, a presiding elder of the AME Zion Church, Rita Colbert, came to inspect the damage. She walked past the curled Dry Erase calendar that still noted the 12 p.m. "Praise Practice" on Feb. 7 and 21. And she walked past the clock, over the church's front door, whose hands had stopped at 8:41 and 50 seconds.

"That this occurred on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of our season of sacrifice and struggle . . ." Colbert stopped, looking for words.

"This is just symbolic of the things in life that can get you down. We will rebuild."

Behind her, broken glass clattered to the ground as workers cleared away the shards.

Garland Conner, left, embraces the Rev. Rita Colbert, presiding elder of the AME Zion Church, who came to inspect the ruins.Edgar Bankhead Jr., whose father is the pastor, stands in the 104-year-old sanctuary, which was being renovated. "It was all done on faith," he said. Garland Conner stands near a cross he made for the church, which was built on land donated by a freed slave.Edgar Bankhead Jr., right, reacts to a check from Pat Flaherty of Bethesda, who said he heard about the fire and decided to offer help.