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Out of the Ashes

A year and a half after Laurel Grove Baptist Church was destroyed by fire, members still waiting to rebuild.

When Laurel Grove Baptist Church burned to the foundation in December 2004, Rev. Ed Young promised his congregation they’d rebuild and return to their home.

Over a year and a half later, they’re still waiting, delayed by zoning codes that didn’t exist when the church was built in the late 1800s.

“We need a special permit to rebuild because we don’t meet the zoning code for that area,” said Young. “It doesn’t sound like much, but we’ve been jumping through hoops to get to this point.”

The church, on Beulah Street in Franconia, was built in what is now an area zoned for residential construction, said Dana Kauffman (D-Lee).

“There’s nothing to do but go back and get the permit for having a church in a residential area,” said Kauffman, who has been working closely with Young and the congregation. “We’ve tried to piece it all together and we stand ready to continue to help every step of the way.”

During a tent worship service last December in the parking lot adjacent to the remains of the church, Young and Kauffman both promised that one day, the church would be rebuilt.

In the meantime, the congregation has been worshipping at Olivet Episcopal Church, a foster home of sorts, which has served as a welcoming home away from home.

“We are constantly involved in actions directed toward rebuilding,” said Young, who added that a fund raiser is scheduled for Oct. 14 at the Waterford banquet hall in Springfield to help pay for the reconstruction.

EVEN WITHOUT a permanent home, Young said he and his congregation remain strong in their faith and their dedication to the Laurel Grove building.

“The testament to that is we haven’t lost a single member,” Young said. “In fact, we’ve increased our numbers.”

From bake sales to catered dinners, Young said his congregation understands it will take a little work from everyone to see their church open again.

“Everyone’s eager to participate, they all want to help in some way,” he said. “Every Sunday, we remind them of the importance of their fundraising activities.”

Moments of frustration have occurred, Young said, but the important thing is to keep the message positive.

“When the church was built in the 1800s, they didn’t have these rules,” Young said. “Now there are things to be dealt with in order to rebuild. We shall overcome this hurdle. We have not lost hope.”

The possibility of looking for another location to build exists, said Board of Trustees chair Cassie Watson, but with 124 years of history on that site, it would be difficult to leave.

"There's a legacy there with the founding families," she said. "The cemetery's there. The school is there. The three of them belong together."

Watson said she's very grateful to Kauffman for his help in continuing to push forward to get the church rebuilt, but in the meantime, Laurel Grove's congregation will continue to meet at Olivet Episcopal Church.

"We love the Olivet family for opening their doors to us," she said. "They've been so patient in this whole process."

As president of the Laurel Grove School Association, Phyllis Walker-Ford said the presence of the church next to the school was reflective of what African American life was like in the late 1800s.

"The church was started in 1882, when Rev. Al W. Brooks came down from Alexandria and found the five original families worshipping in a grove of laurel bushes," she said. For that reason, the Fairfax County History Commission has listed the entire location on its list of historic sites, she said.

Kauffman said he was not happy with the obstacles standing in the way of rebuilding the church, built in conjunction with the still-standing Laurel Grove school which educated freed slaves.

“There are a lot of other types of buildings we’d like to see gone in that area,” he said. “Whatever we can do to help get the church back, we’ll do.”

Like any other zoning case, members of Laurel Grove Baptist Church will have to file an application with the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals and, if approved, will have to submit plans for approval like any other project, Kauffman said.