It's kind of hard to write a story about a people restoring a church without talking much about religion, but the editors at the newspaper that lands in my front yard -- for a few more days -- managed to pull it off.
Of course, the whole idea of this Baltimore Sun report is that this particular historic church is now being turned into a museum, yet the story makes it clear that the worship space is being restored to his previous state, or close to it. So this raises -- at least for me -- a question: Will this be enforced as a secular space or, from time to time, might people in African-American churches (or anyone else, come to think of it) be able to use it for rites that link them to, well, the cloud of witnesses in this place?
The overture makes at least two references to this facility as a worship space, using terms linked to church life:
Summer sun streaming through large windows into the small chapel illuminates panel walls lined with black-and-white, poster-sized photographs of African-American life over the years.
The small, airy room is empty of pews for now, but there's a podium from which to preach God's word.
It's hard to imagine this building -- once the Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church in the western Baltimore County community of Granite -- had been so derelict it was in danger of collapsing. Over the past year, the tiny church has been painstakingly rescued from ruin and transformed into the Diggs-Johnson Museum -- a new life for the 19th-century building that had been abandoned for decades.
This really is an interesting story, centering on the work of a local historian named Louis Diggs, leader of the Friends of Historical Cherry Hill AUMP, and a second historian named Lenwood Johnson, a former Baltimore County government planner. As always, the key questions are (a) when was the church built and (b) who used it for worship? The cornerstone of this building says 1887.
Diggs and Johnson traced the history of the building and learned its last congregation called it the Cherry Hill African Union Methodist Protestant Church. The congregation disbanded in the 1970s.
The property's use as a place of worship might date to the 1860s or even earlier, Diggs said. He said former slaves who worked in the quarries in Granite and bought their freedom may have squatted on the land and used it as a church. He found a newspaper article from 1869 that described a storm that damaged "the colored people's church on the road leading from the Quarries to Woodstock."
Then in 1884, landowner John Dorsey sold the property to the African-Americans to use for a church and cemetery. Based on the cornerstone, the current building appears to have been constructed in 1887, Diggs said.
The pews are missing, but the search is on to find them. A projector and screen will soon be installed, for when the space is used for educational purposes. This passage struck me as especially interesting and worthy of follow-up questions, for journalists who are into that kind of thing:
Eventually, the museum will offer genealogy and history classes and could be a field trip destination for students studying African-American history. It will serve as a repository for information about Baltimore County's 40 historically African-American communities, including the extensive research and a photograph collection amassed by Diggs.
OK, here is my question. They are restoring a worship space that, in part, will be used as a link to 40 African-American communities. What, precisely, does the word "community" mean in that context? How in the world do you study African-American history, especially in a church building, without exploring the lives of the religious communities at the heart of black history?
Just asking. Practical questions flow out of that. Will the "pulpit" be used for lectures, alone? Will the pews hold worshipers -- under any circumstances -- or will this (I don't know, think about the laws of Turkey) be defined as a secular space, period?
It does appear that some people who visit this sanctuary cannot help but think about, and perhaps even feel connected to, what happened in this sacred space in the past. This part intrigued me, too, focusing on one Betty Stewart, a Windsor Mill resident who worked on the restoration.
Stewart, secretary of the Friends organization, said the building had been in rough shape and "smelled awful" inside. Now the retired nurse finds peace in the building and sometimes, if she's there by herself, is moved to sing in the old sanctuary.
"This little building may be small, but it has a big personality," Stewart said. "It must have been a wonderful place for people to worship."
I wonder what kinds of songs she sings, when she is there all alone? Once again, might religion have SOMETHING to do with this story about a church linked to the slave era? Just a little bit?
PHOTO: From the website of the Historical Society of Baltimore County.