Driving through the fields and farms of 1970s-era Franconia, Dolores Comer Frye instantly felt a bond to the North Carolina town where she was raised.
"I saw some ladies out in this field, cutting hay and putting it in the wagon. That really interested me," said Frye, who also was intrigued by the small, white church building on Beulah Street which was Laurel Grove Baptist Church.
Following her children's lead, Frye joined Laurel Grove in 1976 and found a community of people from many other parts of the country, all looking for the same kind of church atmosphere.
"A lot of us have a history of small churches in our hometowns, and that is one of the things that attracts a lot of people to that particular location," said Frye. "It's always been a small, family-oriented church."
Over a century after the church was built by freed slaves on a 1-acre patch of land, tragedy struck the Laurel Grove congregation on Dec. 20, 2004. Just a few hours after the annual Christmas production, fire swept through the building and gutted it. Fire investigators determined the two-alarm blaze was caused by an electrical malfunction in the attic. After 120 years of history, the Laurel Grove building was gone in a matter of minutes.
"Everybody left on an up note, and then to go back to that. It was just devastating. I was wondering the effect it would have on other members. I just had to be there. It was just like your house was on fire," said Frye, who many years ago had used her love of history to begin compiling the history of Laurel Grove. Luckily, she said, she had taken all those books home a few weeks before the fire.
ALTHOUGH SUBURBAN development and the Inova Hospital next door, swallowed up the farmlands around Laurel Grove, the building, and the people who attended there, remained a source of spiritual encouragement.
"Those early founders, they sacrificed a lot that that building could be there, that we could have the privilege of worshipping as we worship today. That community was predominantly a white community and they dug out a little spot for us," said Frye.
Phyllis Walker Ford, now a resident of Clifton, attended Laurel Grove off and on for most of her life. She is a direct descendent of William and Georgianna Jasper, who donated the 1 acre of land on which the church and a one-room schoolhouse were built in the 1880s. Along with other African American residents of the Franconia community, most of whom were freed slaves, the Jaspers went to work building the church and school, built by hand with lumber donated by another family, the Carrolls. The name for both buildings came from the high number of laurel bushes in the area.
"It was like that all across Fairfax County. Churches and one-room schools were built so that African Americans could be educated and have a place to worship," said Ford. "It tells a story that education was very important to them, so they started the school first."
Among those founding families were the Jaspers, Carrolls, Grays, Braxtons and Harrises, many of whom still have descendants attending the church.
IN 1881, the school for the African-American children of the Carroltown community opened its doors, and three years later the church did the same. The school remained in existence until 1932, when it was turned over to Fairfax County. In 1999, however, when the property was sold to developers, the school was restored to its 19th century interior, and serves as a museum which Fairfax County Public School students have visited.
Ford remembers attending Sunday School at Laurel Grove in the 1950s. She lived on Walker Lane, now the site of the Metro Office Park, and recalls hearing the bell ringing from the church on Sunday morning.
"We could just come out our door and walk to the school because it was so close," said Ford, who caught the school bus to Luther Jackson High School in the 1960s from Laurel Grove, when Fairfax County Schools were still segregated. She moved away, but her two aunts, ages 94 and 97, still attend the church.
With a capacity for a little over 100 people, Laurel Grove never was a "mega-church." But Comer Frye said membership has always stayed around 60 or 70, because of the family atmosphere fostered there. After her daughter went away to college, Frye said she wondered if with her daughter's changing mindset, she would return to the church of her youth. But one day, when a deacon announced the church's new members, she was surprised to see her daughter standing in the front of the church.
"She went everywhere else and she finally came back to Laurel Grove. "That's the kind of relationship that was garnered at that place," said Frye. "It's not so big that it can't take personal interest in their membership."
WHAT CURRENT pastor Edward Young Sr. discovered shortly after the fire is that the love for the church extended well beyond its own walls. Just a few hours after the fire, the pastor of Olivet Episcopal Church in Alexandria called Young to inform him Laurel Grove had a standing invitation to move its worship services to Olivet indefinitely. They have been conducting Sunday School, Sunday service and Wednesday night Bible study at Olivet ever since, and haven’t missed a Sunday, according to Young.
"Everybody in the community just opened their arms. The community-based support for that church is one of its greatest strengths, and it's not limited to nationalities. All people, all walks of life who live in that community are great supporters," said Young, a former Army Medical Corps officer who became the 13th pastor of Laurel Grove in 2000. Young said in light of the tragedy, the church's members will rely on their storied history to move forward.
"Anything that you lose that you love initially there is a period of grieving, and regret. But I believe that because of the movement of the Spirit of God, we have been able to begin to celebrate a new beginning, and the basis for our celebration is the legacy of the church itself," said Young. He has already had one meeting with the Fairfax County Office of Planning and Zoning regarding rebuilding a church building on the existing site, which is definitely the goal.
"The bottom line is we will be rebuilding on that same site," said Young, who added that he began preaching a series of messages entitled "Celebrating a New Beginning" a year ago, and he believes the church was prepared for something like the fire because of those messages.
"When (the fire) happened, we were ready, we had already begun to embrace that theme," he said. "That is what's propelling us into the future and keeping us together."