Three years ago, on the morning after a devastating fire swept through Northwood-Appold UMC in Baltimore, the Rev. Cecil Gray promised to rebuild. On Oct. 16, Gray stood with two bishops and a congregation of close to 200, in the restored sanctuary, offering thanks and praise to God.
On Dec. 27, 2013, a four-alarm fire broke out at Northwood-Appold UMC in Baltimore. More than 100 fire fighters responded with 16 fire trucks, pouring eight hours of water on the 2,000-degree blaze in attempt to save the church.
At the time, local news stations reported on the miracle of the cross standing over the collapsed roof. The cross survived the fire unharmed and now sits atop the brand new steeple of this resurrected church.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the current episcopal leader of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, and Bishop Felton Edwin May, who served the conference from 1996 to 2004, attended as a witness to the congregation for its steadfast perseverance.
Noting the faithfulness and abiding presence of God, Bishop Easterling preached on “the prayers of the righteous.” She led the people in honoring God for enabling efforts to restore the church.
Prayer, she said, should never be seen as a last resort. It should be at the center of our lives, morning, day and night. And, God, she cautioned, should never be treated as a “cosmic bellhop,” delivering on our wishes.
In all prayer, the bishop preached, we ask that God’s will be done – “not my will, but God’s will be done.” She emphasized that religion’s role is to “de-center the ego,” not pander to its desires. The prayers of the righteous are those who pray it over to God and leave it there. “We have to have enough trust to leave it there,” she said.
That trust, that faith can accomplish great things. Looking around the new building, the bishop offered thanks. “Here we are,” she said, “standing on the promises of God.”
Throughout the service, Gray continually took a deep breath with his eyes towards the heavens mouthing the words, “thank you.”
He noted that Northwood-Appold changes the words on the sign outside the church weekly, and the day before the fire, they changed it to just one word, “humble.” He said it was as if God was preparing them. That word is still on the sign. It also lives in the faith of its people.
The rebuilding was not always easy, Gray admitted. Insurance complications held up the work.
But, Gray said, God sent an angel named Jai Seunarine, CEO of Jai Medical Centers.
Seunarine had heard about the church and toured it in the dead of winter. The roof and windows were gone and snow and icy rain lay knee-deep in the sanctuary.
Seunarine saw this, made one phone call and the insurance money came forth almost immediately. “I don’t know who he was talking to, but God was listening,” Gray said.
As part of the worship, the congregation thanked the Baltimore City Fire Department, honoring them with a plaque in recognition of their dedication and service.
The idea of persevering with God’s help was also present in the children’s sermon, when high school student Taylor Johnson gave the children pieces of paper with the hashtag #NGU on them. She told the story of from Luke 18:1-8 of the widow seeking justice.
Just like the widow, Northwood-Appold never gave up, she told the children. “We never gave up, and look what God has blessed us with.”