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Homeward Bound

Springfield congregation gathers near fire-damaged church with hopes of rebuilding.

If the congregation at Laurel Grove Baptist Church needed any reminder of the purpose of Sunday's tent worship service, it didn't have to look much further than the sunny skies overhead.

For the first time in nearly a year, members of the congregation gathered at the site of their church to pray, sing and profess their faith in God and in the hope that their church — badly burnt last December — would return.

"Fire does not destroy, it transforms," read youth director Angela Comer, from a poem she had written for the occasion. The proclamation was quickly engulfed in shouts of "Amen" and applause.

Visiting from her church in Alexandria, Minister Evelyn King reminded the faithful of the healing power of fire, how it enriches the land it burns and the hearts it fills.

"This fire was not designed to kill you, it was not designed to take you out. This fire was designed to cure you," she said, in an impassioned tone that danced between singing and speaking.

In prayer, gospel readings and sermons, the leaders of the church reminded their brethren of the mission before them: to rebuild the church of their forefathers, on the land that had been given to them 120 years ago.

The building may have been destroyed in the fire on Dec. 20, 2004, but the church lives in the hearts of those who worshipped in the building, said Rev. Edward Young, Sr.

"The spirit of being here was rekindled," said Comer, after the service. "When you come home, there's always more feeling and more emotion."

THE TENT SERVICE had been organized to "inspire people to keep hope up for rebuilding" what had been destroyed, said Deacon Tony Foust. He said the service was more "spirit-led" than on a typical weekend, which he attributed to the presence of the old building.

Gathering in the tent, which was set up in the parking lot adjacent to where the skeleton of the church still stands, was a reminder of what once was and an encouragement of what will be again, Comer said.

"It was so hard watching the church burn down," Comer said. She had been on her way to her job as an Alexandria police officer, when her mother called to tell her of the fire. Almost a year later, she remembers the gratitude she and others felt for the Springfield police and fire departments who "prayed with us, did everything they could to help us" on that cold, dark morning.

"We don't want to see this," she said of the old church. "But we know this is not what the church is and it's not what it will be. The last service we had there was a children's service the night before the fire. We want to get back in and do that again."

Pastor Young said he wanted the tent service to remind his congregation of the need to rebuild and to demonstrate "God's favor is upon the Laurel Grove church family."

"As we become united as a body and as a community, we'll speed up the opportunity to rebuild," he said.

The ability to remember happier times when dealing with a grave loss helps to push people forward and to renew their commitment to a common goal, Young said.

"If we are united in spirit, the body will follow," he said. "When the founding families started this process, there was nothing here. This is now hallowed ground."

FOLLOWING SUNDAY'S service, Young and Cassie Watson, one of the church's trustees, introduced Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) and members of the Fairfax County Police and Fire and Rescue units, thanking them all for their support and help during the fire. Young also thanked Rev. David Rhodenhizer from the Calvary Road Baptist Church, located across the street from Laurel Grove, and members from Olivet Episcopal Church, for their help, hospitality and opening their doors to give Laurel Grove a place to worship for the past 11 months.

"This is a congregation rich in spirit," said Kauffman. "There's a warm feeling being here today, much warmer than that cold, dark morning when the church burned down."

As for plans to rebuild the church, Kauffman said he's been working with the Board of Trustees to get plans started. "I hope a year from now we can be in the new church celebrating," he said.

"This is a new beginning for us," said Watson. "It's a time of thanksgiving and being thankful that we all have each other. You can feel the spirit of the Lord in this place. God has found favor in our congregation."

Behind the original church building is a cemetery where members of the congregation were buried, said historian Delores Comer. "We know what the people there did for the progress of this church, and I can feel that they know what we're doing here today."

Delores Comer has never doubted the church would be rebuilt, but she was glad for the chance to remind others in the congregation what their mission was, as a community.

"Today reminded me of the services we've had in the past," she said. "You could feel the spirit in the air."