It is always a cause to celebrate when a church becomes more accessible and easier for the community to use. It’s even more so when that church is the Birthplace of American Methodism, Lovely Lane UMC in Baltimore.
On a day filled with firsts, the Rev. Deb Scott, the church’s pastor, welcomed Baltimore Metropolitan District Superintendent, the Rev. Wanda Duckett, and BWC Bishop LaTrelle Easterling to a celebration as the church marked a milestone in its multi-year, multi-million-dollar project to bring the church “into the 21st century.”
It was the first time Bishop Easterling preached in a local church in person since the pandemic began last March. And it was the first time Bishop Easterling – the first woman bishop in the 230+ year history of the Baltimore-Washington Conference – had preached at this historic Methodist site, whose first pastor was Francis Asbury in 1772.
“It is one of those momenta that you recognize that, in the midst of the horror that we’ve experienced in the last 14 months, that God still calls us, that the mission and vision of this congregation were clear, and we weren’t going to let anything stop us,” said Scott after the nearly two-hour worship service and ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Churches were always intended to be ‘community centers.’”
Raising money during the pandemic, getting all the blueprints done and permits pulled, and performing the actual work have all been unique challenges, Scott said. But a small army of volunteers, contractors, staff, community partners, and more have made it all possible.
“The vision is to make a 19th-century architectural gem into an amenities-friendly church for 2021 and beyond,” said Scott. “When this structure was built, there was one bathroom. The Baltimore Symphony was interested in using our space for concerts, but one bathroom wouldn’t accommodate the intermission.”
The accessibility ramp means people will no longer have to go to the rear of the building, travel through the museum, and use an elevator to get to the sanctuary, she said.
The Lovely Lane Arts and Neighborhood Center is a 7-year project, according to the church’s website, that will offer year-round space to host community groups, performing arts events, and art and cultural exhibits.
Phase one of the project is the installation of a wheelchair-accessible ramp from the front of the church leading to a front door, and the creation of four new, accessible bathrooms. The next two phases of the project include installing air conditioning in the fellowship hall, restoring the Tiffany windows in the chapel, updating electrical and security systems, improving audio capacity, and restoring the South Tower entrance and historic staircase.
Jackie Noller, the chairperson of the 21st Century Committee at Lovely Lane, said that the project came out of a vision to change the direction of the church.
“We asked, ‘How does this building represent an opportunity rather than a building to take care of?’” she said. “We had so much under-used space. We needed to do a few things to make it more amenable to the 21st century.”
Numerous grants have made the project possible, Scott said, including a $250,000 capital grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places. Lovely Lane is the first church in Maryland — and part of a network of only 50 houses of worship nationwide since 2016 — to receive this NFSP award.
Congregation members have also played a major part in the financial support of the project, Scott said.
The church launched a capital campaign in 2019 to raise the required 2:1 match for the full grant award, Noller said, and additional funding to cover the remaining costs for the $2.6 million project. Due to the impact of COVID-19 on capital projects, the timeline and project phases have been adjusted for economic considerations.
In her sermon, Bishop Easterling preached on Psalm 1 and the power of “good roots.” The bishop lamented the “rugged individualism” of Western culture and contrasted that to the covenant prayer of John Wesley, which states, in part, “I am no longer my own.”
“We have a choice to make,” Bishop Easterling said. “We can be shaped by Western culture or the cross of Christ. Our founder understood the need to create a cruciform life – both horizontally and vertically.”
She challenged the congregation at Lovely Lane to examine their roots by asking, “How are you planted? Lovely Lane: Are you a church that is planted well? We need you.”
Confirming that the church is planted well, the bishop noted that the church is prospering. The redevelopment project was fruit of that fact.
“Don’t let nothing turn you around,” the bishop said to the congregation. “Continue to live a cruciform life.”
Watch the full worship service and ribbon cutting on the Lovely Lane UMC Facebook page.