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The Church at the End of the Road

First Baptist Church Of Fairfield Ponders Giving Up The Ghost, But Not The Spirit

Photos by Michelle Gienow
Virginia Wilkerson has never lived in Fairfield but has been coming to church here for the past 40 years.

View a slideshow of photographs.

By Chris Landers | Posted 2/14/2007

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The preacher, tall and handsome in his dark suit and glasses, wheels, jumps, and paces as he builds to a crescendo. His words crash over the parishioners in their oak pews, and they match him amen for amen. He grows louder, his voice distorted through the lone amplifier that serves as the PA system. His left hand holds the microphone, his right is always in motion--now holding a white handkerchief to wipe away the beads of sweat that have formed on his forehead, now removing his glasses as they threaten to fly from his face. He has taken as his text the 37th Psalm--the one that begins "Fret not thyself because of evildoers . . . "--but he's off on his own now, riffing on the New Year, telling them that another year in the church is something to celebrate. As he reaches the climax, his right hand slams down in the air again and again. He bends almost double, repeating a phrase until it becomes a chant: "We made it through another year. We made it through another year. We made it through another year."

In the silence that follows, as the wave recedes and the Rev. Kenneth Harvard replaces his glasses, you can hear the soft babbling of the children in the back of the church.

It is possible to believe, for just a minute, that beyond the heavy purple curtains that drape the windows behind the altar, Fairfield still exists. That when communion is over and the offerings have been made, the doors will swing wide and the corner store will welcome little boys to separate them from their pocket money. That the bulldozers never came for the houses and stores, the barbershop and the taverns. That something is left besides the piles of scrap metal and the tires and the factories and the little church in the middle of it all. And to forget that by this time next year the First Baptist Church of Fairfield, the lone holdout, will be gone as well.

Last year the trustees of the church sold it to the city for $240,000. Harvard says they will move in the next six months, about a year shy of the church's 100th birthday. The land on which First Baptist sits will join the rest of the neighborhood as an empowerment zone meant to attract industry to Fairfield, the area of South Baltimore northeast of Brooklyn. Larisa Salamacha, who has worked on the area since 1994 for the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public economic-development agency, says the area around the church will go to several different industrial businesses: a contracting company, a warehouse, a petroleum transporter, and an asphalt company. The neighboring scrap yard will expand.

When Salamacha first came onto the project, she says, the city intended to keep residents where they were, but most wanted to move away--not everyone, but she estimates 80-85 percent. "The community said, `We don't feel like it's safe,'" she recalls. "People wanted to leave." Most, if not all, the sites had some level of petroleum contamination, Salamacha says, and there were few incentives for the businesses that owned the properties to clean them up.

Since 1994, millions have been spent on road improvements in the neighborhood, and some 400 acres that were vacant are now occupied or under contract. "The empowerment zone designation helped stimulate a new chapter" for Fairfield, Salamacha says. She acknowledges that it may not look like much, but "it provided the stimulus to move this area from what it always was to something better." The nearby community of Wagner's Point, she observes, is now a parking lot. But despite the wholesale evacuation, First Baptist has held on. "I think it speaks to people's sense of place--of home," she says.

To call today's Fairfield blighted would be an insult to those Baltimore communities that deserve the name. There is nothing here except the church and a few abandoned houses, obscured by junk and overgrowth from Chesapeake Avenue, the closest paved road, where cars speed by on weekdays to the terminals and plants down the street. On the map First Baptist sits at the corner of Brady Avenue and Fairfield Road. In reality it sits between sorted piles of scrap metal and a row of abandoned trailers. Down the block, the order of the scrap-metal piles breaks down as tires and trash spill into the street, making it impassable. This once-thriving neighborhood, isolated from the ills of the city across the water, has been flattened so completely that it exists only in memory. But people do remember.

"It was almost like a gated community, without the gates" says Belinda Nickens, 56, who raised four children in Fairfield. "It was a little community unto itself."

Nickens still drives out to see the place every once in a while, still remembers the retired principal who helped get her GED when she was a young wife and a high-school dropout. "There's a lot of good memories here," she says. "A lot of good things happened to me in Fairfield."

People who left, she says, went one of two ways. Some did well, building on the stability of their early years in Fairfield. Others couldn't handle the move into less isolated parts of Baltimore, and the crime that surrounded the new neighborhoods they could afford to live in.

"We were so shut off," Nickens says. "They weren't used to all that. People went into the city and got into all that mess."

When First Baptist goes, she says, the only thing left will be the chemical tanks looming above it. "It's almost like the end of Fairfield," she says. "There is no more Fairfield. Not to us. They've taken everything we had already."

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