“It’s not too bad,” said the Rev. Edgar Bankhead, as he surveyed the damage from the fire that swept through First Agape (formerly Gibson Grove) church.
“My father is an optimist,” said Edgar Bankhead Jr.
The 105-year-old church, which is listed as a historic landmark in the Potomac Master Plan, sustained approximately $500,000 in damage when an oil furnace overloaded on the night of Feb. 25. The church had been waiting about three months for a new gas furnace to be installed, said Judi Bankhead, the reverend’s wife.
Judi Bankhead said that she and Rev. Bankhead were at a Bible study in Manassas, Va., when they heard that the church was on fire. They drove to the church immediately.
“By the time we got here, 32 members of the congregation were outside, singing and praying,” Bankhead said. “The little children were crying. It’s like a second home to them. Some of us stayed until 1:30 [a.m].”
Some 85 members of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service tried to save the church, but the fire swept through the building too quickly. “It’s damaged enough that we’re pretty much going to have to start over again,” said Edgar Bankhead Jr.
The 130-member congregation has no plans to leave the community. “When you think about the people who’ve been singing to the Lord here, for 100 years, that means something,” Judi Bankhead said.
The church had recently been the object of discussion when the county considered a plan to add car-pool lanes to the Beltway and possibly widen it. The church’s location on Seven Locks Road at the Beltway underpass made it possible that, were the Beltway to grow, the church might have to move.
The building is not the first to sit on the spot, on land donated by a former slave. But parts of the original structure remain. The floorboards, said Judi Bankhead, date back to the original structure, and the congregation intends to preserve them. “We’re going to save as much of it as we can,” she said.
The church’s insurance will probably not cover the entire rebuilding costs. The community has already begun to rally around the historic congregation. Danny Harris, a resident of Cabin John, came to the burned building on the day after the fire to offer his support and a donation to the church. “We’re willing to help,” Harris said of the community.
Glen Echo Baptist and St. Andrews’ churches have already offered the congregation a place to worship, and the church’s trustees are looking at other places where they might go while they rebuild the church.
“It will make us stronger and bring us closer together,” said Rev. Bankhead.