By Sharon Mager, BCM/D Correspondent
BALTIMORE—“The Church on Warren Avenue” – the Lee Street Memorial Church, has served as a refuge near Baltimore’s inner harbor since 1854. They have provided a beacon of hope through 30 presidents, multiple wars, economic upheavals and natural disasters. Just four years ago, feeling like they were on their last leg, God quickened the church once more—breathing new life into the 155-year-old gathering of His body of believers. The church’s rich heritage continues to live on.
“That’s where Annie Armstrong sat when she would be here,” Lyn O’Berry, senior pastor of the church said, pointing to his right as he stood in front of the sanctuary.
The pews are originals. Families from the Union and Confederacy prayed together; black and white, free and slave sang hymns praising God.
“The church began in a stable on Hill Street,”O’Berry said. Believers gathered for a Bible study and Sunday school. The group expanded and in 1855, an Episcopal Church on Lee Street, with an immersion style baptistery, became available. Baptists purchased the building and it became Lee Street Church.
Due to its history, Episcopalians came to worship while they were in town, including Sydney Smith Lee, Robert E. Lee’s brother, who served as commandant at the US Naval Academy and Captain Franklin Buchanan, first superintendant of the Academy.
The Civil War was a difficult time for the church and the city. “After Antietam and Fredericksburg, there was not a family in the church that had not lost someone to the conflict. Members were serving both North and South,” O ’Berry said. Trains carrying the wounded travelled through the city and Baltimoreans regularly saw the ravages of war. The city was also under occupation by Union troops who used Federal Hill as a strategic military stronghold with a cannon trained on the harbor.
In 1862, Lee Street’s pastor, Isaac Cole wanted the church to be a symbol of healing. The church history says Cole “called the church to arise and build.”
“They decided to build a new church in the middle of the war,” O’Berry exclaimed. Church members tore the old building down brick by brick and used those same bricks to construct a new building on the foundations of the old. The structure was dedicated in June 1863. “Brother fought brother at Culps Hill at Gettysburg less than a month later while their families and friends strived to complete the structure,” O’Berry said.
The new facility was completed in 1864, the year of Lincoln’s re-election and it was that same year that the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware chose to have its annual meeting at the new Baltimore church, the only time the Convention did so.
E.Y. Mullins came and pastored the church for eight years. He left to become secretary of the Foreign Mission Board. Later he would serve as president of Southern Seminary and the Baptist World Alliance.
In 1912, as the railroad expanded Camden Yards and the city was rebuilding as a result of the great Baltimore fire, the church moved to its current location on Warren Avenue. History shows this move was “against advice.” They kept the name of Lee Street and added “Memorial” in memory of the rich history the church had already lived through in their former location. “Civil War veterans and their families especially remembered the church as a symbol of hope, healing and fellowship,” O’Berry explained.
The church today continues to use the pews from the original church, all made by Joseph Thomas & Sons. Thomas, a Baptist, owned a planning mill on Leadenhall Street and his work was popular throughout the city during the middle 1800’s. The pipe organ also is original, dating to the construction of the church.
O’Berry gestured around the sanctuary and said, “‘This building was built to tell as story.” The ceilings are as high as they could be so people would look up. The pews face east – towards Jerusalem. The incredible huge leaded stained glass windows surround the sanctuary and each tells a part of the story of redemption throughout history. O’Berry said someone could bring a child into the sanctuary and share the Gospel of Jesus using those windows. The pulpit was placed in the center, where it remains. O’Berry said it was placed there to symbolize the centrality of the Word of God.
In spite of its history of overcoming adversity, the church of the new century was teetering on the edge of extinction. Four years ago, they went through a difficult time. O’Berry came as an interim to help the church body to prayerfully determine its future. “The community had passed them by. Their journey had not gone well,” O’Berry said sadly.
An intervention team recommended merging with another church and walking away, but the congregation felt God wanted them to stay. They decided they wanted to be a “viable, vital, vibrant Southern Baptist church comprised of community residents.” God answered that prayer.
“We are flabbergasted at what God has done,” O’Berry said. The church took on a trade name, holding fast to the old name while adding the new one which focused on the church’s location, looking to its present and future while respecting the integrity of its past.
In 2006, the membership primarily consisted of senior citizens. Now, young people outnumber the seniors. They have an active senior’s ministry, a young adult focused Bible Study, “the Vine,” and they sponsor two community Bible studies outside their walls. The church partners with Peabody Conservatory and the North American Mission Board to support a collegiate ministry. They have an active fine arts program for all ages. They’re also getting ready to launch a Christian Women’s Job Corp program. Once again, the church is impacting its community in a big way.
O’Berry said God has allowed them to use mission teams to accomplish the community outreach—providing the hands, feet and youth the church lacked. God also provided Dawson Hull, a Peabody student who ministered with O’Berry to lead music and reach out to young adults and professionals. Hull has since moved on to be pastor of instrumental music at Second Church in Georgia, but while he was in Baltimore, Hull brought Michael Gamon, another Peabody student, now a graduate, to Warren Avenue. Gamon stayed, as an associate pastor and is a huge asset to the church, leading the fine arts academy, preaching and leading the young adult ministries. Gamon’s new wife, Jen, a Peabody graduate student, heads up the Peabody collegiate ministry. Now more Peabody students and graduates volunteer. O’Berry laughs and says the church has the hands-down best worship team around – New Found Joy is not just a worship team but a ministry where talented artists and others come together.
In addition to Gamon, talented musician, Hollis Hammond, is the music director and Anne Arundel Community College campus minister, Eric Reiber, is a deacon.
“We’ve been able to do things in four years that I never thought we’d accomplish,” O’Berry said.
“God has provided every step of the way.”