Ebenezer Baptist Church reborn after fire

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Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
Valinda Holland, left, and Bernece Grayson celebrate the reopening of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District during the consecration yesterday.
By Ervin Dyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They came in blue jeans and pinstripes. They were young men in yellow sweatsuits and senior citizens in fur wraps. They were church ladies with feathers in black hats and clergy in white collars.

They parked their coal-black Mercedes sedans in the paved lot or they stepped off the 81A bus.

It didn't matter. They were a community some 700 strong who came to consecrate the newly rebuilt Ebenezer Baptist Church yesterday, on the site of a 2004 electrical fire that destroyed the 131-year-old building and killed two firefighters.

The service shook at times with century-worn spirituals or was quieted by the images of a dozen deacons on their knees before the altar.

"People feel a sense of past with the church; when it burned, it was like a monument that was no longer there," said the Rev. J.V. Alfred Winsett, who has led the church for 33 years.

In sermons to his congregation, The Rev. Winsett's message is that the "building burned, not the church. We continue to believe that this ground is sacred."

"This is a dream. I can't believe it," said Brenda Tate, a senior usher, and a church member who stood on a corner in March 2004 and saw the church burn to the ground. Yesterday, she stood in the bright, glassy central foyer and welcomed visitors. "It's beautiful. All I can do is cry."

There were tears for Ebenezer yesterday. The old is gone.

Almost nothing was saved when the church's 115-foot tall bell tower collapsed during the blaze.

The new has risen. The 5,000-square foot building has a state of the art sound and light system, dozens of classrooms and offices, a 150-seat chapel and a fellowship hall that includes an industrial-size kitchen. Visiting ministers joked they needed a map to find the Rev. Winsett's office yesterday. There was plenty to consecrate.

A score of liturgical dancers set it all in motion.

Their arms outstretched, they high-stepped into the sanctuary on carpet so fresh a couple danced in stocking feet. Banners of purple and white were waved in the air.

A brigade of ushers in white gloves stood sentry.

"We roll out the welcome mat," said Ebenezer deaconess Joyce Beard, "and open the doors of our hearts. We break the bread of life this morning. We are home church."

The church has come this far by faith, said the Rev. Winsett. He still does not have a master key to the church and didn't know quite how he would enter yesterday. A week ago, he still had no occupancy permit. He planned the consecration on a prayer that the OK would be given to get into the building.

Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
Nearly 800 people gathered at the new Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Hill District yesterday
Click photo for larger image.

In the aftermath of the fire, Ebenezer worshipped in a Seventh-day Adventist Church a few blocks away.

Over the weeks, ministries lagged and members were lost.

But Ebenezer has bounced back from fire before.

It's been struck at least twice by lightning and in 1976 a fire damaged one side of the old building.

"Thank you for Ebenezer rising from the ashes," said the Rev. J. Earl Garmon, a Baptist preacher from Lawrenceville and one of 13 clergy who participated in the consecration, a rededication of the church as a sacred space.

"This is a story of hope; that Ebenezer will continue to lend hope to a dying world. Congratulations on your return," he said. "But to God be the glory."

"God has brought us back home again, what better time to reconsecrate ourselves to the Lord," said the Rev. Barbara Gunn, one of the guest preachers.

Ebenezer has its roots in Oakland's First Baptist. Tired of a place where they were made to sit in the balcony, black worshippers left First Baptist in 1874 and founded Ebenezer above a Downtown dance hall.

At times yesterday, the spiritual movement resembled that original dance hall.

The Rev. Joseph Cook, a minister in a non-denominational church in Observatory Hill, danced across the front of the church during a moving rendition of "Oh, Happy Day."

"I just couldn't sit still. I was in the discos all night in the '60s," he grinned. "If I can dance for the devil, then I can dance for the Lord."

For Jasmine Lattaker, the pristine new space is bittersweet. Miss Lattaker, 16, of Homewood, is the granddaughter of the Rev. Winsett.

The "old" Ebenezer was her first church. It's where she gave her first speech. It's where she learned everything she knows about God. It's where she met the people who made her feel like she wanted to be somebody.

"I'm really proud of this church. It's the people that make it," she said. "But I miss it so much. It was too big a chunk of my life."

Ervin Dyer can be reached at edyer@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1410.


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