The damage was monumental. In only a few hours, the First Mt. Olive Baptist Church was no more, displacing hundreds of members.
Now, five years after their former church on Saratoga Avenue burned to the ground, First Mt. Olive members are commemorating not only their past trial by fire, but also their rebirth, with the opening of a new permanent building in Linthicum, Md.
“It is overwhelming,” said Bishop Oscar E. Brown, pastor of the 74-year-old church. “We came from Saratoga and Fremont where we had approximately 50,000 square feet. Now, to move into a facility that is 132,000 square feet is more than we could ever imagine.”
The new facility offers more than enough room for the 2,500-member congregation, school ministries and other activities that will also give First Mt. Olive the opportunity to offer access to the rest of the community.
"There's multi-purpose space and there is health and wellness space," said Dr. Bryan Miller, a media representative for the congregation.
The fire that damaged a large part of the sanctuary started around 1 p.m. on July 10, 2007, a few hours before evening activities in the building were to begin. According to Miller, what wasn’t destroyed by the fire was damaged by the water used by firefighters to extinguish the blaze.
Miller vividly recalls “seeing the flames coming out of the building,” and said the congregation became much closer after the fire. They later were able to “recognize it to be a move of God, but that was after the pain.”
With no place to hold services, the congregation faced some tough choices. Though devastated by the damages that totaled over $400,000, the church was not defeated, especially after an unlikely source came to their aid, members said.
Not even two days after the fire, Rabbi Steven M. Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore reached out to Brown and his congregation, offering them a temporary home.
"It was simply the right thing to do," Fink told the AFRO. "We had the space over the summer and we knew that this congregation needed a home. I could imagine what it felt like. I had empathy for them."
First Mt. Olive Baptist stayed on at Temple Oheb Shalom for three months, using their 800-seat sanctuary and concert hall to hold services. When the temple’s religious school started in September, space became tight. Baltimore’s Jewish community reached out again. This time, the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, across the street from Oheb Shalom, offered a temporary worship site.
"It's been a great partnership and they have been lovely to deal with," said Jo Ann Windman, executive director of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. First Mt. Olive has held services there for most of the five years the members have been without a church home.
“They had a tragic fire in their place and they needed a place to worship. We were happy to open our doors to them,” Windman said. She added, “We're here to help those that are in need and we've made some very nice friendships.”
"I think it says that people of good will can work together for mutual benefit," said Fink, when asked what lessons the general community can draw from the partnership.
Brown said he was amazed at the way the relationships unfolded since “there was no previous connection to the Jewish community.”
“We cannot allow our differences to separate us,” he said. “We should focus on the things that we have in common. What we then discover is that we have more in common than what we dislike or disagree on.