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Groud broken on Baptist church in Jamaica

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Nobody seemed to mind when the start of the groundbreaking for a new St. John’s Baptist Church in Jamaica was repeatedly stalled Saturday afternoon as local dignitaries filed through the door and a flurry of preparations kept a house full of volunteers on their feet.

After a 25-year wait, what did an extra hour matter?

Tents were put up outside the small church for a joyous celebration filled with bursts of prayer echoing between the pulpit and the congregation. As parishioners sat beneath the white canopy in a yard many times larger than the church’s confined sanctuary, they briefly experienced what worship may be like once the church tears down its longtime home and moves into something bigger.

“We plan on erecting for God a building that will house more than we can house now,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Lawrence Dorsey, as he entertained visitors in his small second-floor office while preparing for the ceremony, which also marked the congregation’s 78th birthday.

For the past 58 years, St. John’s Baptist Church has occupied an aging house on Guy R. Brewer Boulevard that still looks more like a family home than a house of worship.

The congregation holds services in a narrow first-floor room with wood-paneled walls and a plush red carpet, where the pulpit sits on a modest platform before a pair of bluish pictures depicting Jesus standing in the midst of clouds and water. In the center of the wall is a cross made from mirrors.

It has all the comforts of home, with a cramped staircase leading to a crowded kitchen and an office for the pastor set up in one of the bedrooms. But what might be cozy for a family is downright tiny for a congregation.

“There’s not enough space for all the members,” said Sylvia Benjamin, 29, who as head of the church’s tape ministry is responsible for the parish’s video equipment. Like many others, she had been a member of the church all her life.

“It’s wall to wall packed” during Sunday services, she said. “It gets a little hot, then when you have the Lord flow through the place, you have people stretched all over the place.”

More than two decades ago, the church’s then-leaders had already hatched a plan of their own to expand beyond the narrow confines of their modest house.

The fruits of their labor are still visible in the ground next to the existing building, where the cement blocks and ruddy beams of a foundation dug into the earth about 25 years ago have remained virtually untouched. Construction on what was to have been a new church building never rose beyond the basement level.

“I have no idea why it didn’t come to fruition. I’ve heard different accounts,” said Dorsey, who was an adolescent at that time and only joined the parish five years ago. “I’d rather look in the future.”

The new church is to be “a more modern edifice with all the likes of luxury in worship,” the pastor said, although his building materials extend well beyond wood and concrete.

“More important than building the building, we’re trying to build lives,” he added. “We’re trying to give folks more hope.”

The new space will only make those spiritual construction projects that much easier to carry out by serving as a multicultural center and housing social services like day care, a food pantry and tutoring.

A model of the new church that sat hidden beneath a white cloth before its unveiling Saturday showed off a sleek, modern building with a flat roof and a facade of marble and glass.

It will be built in two stages, the first on the site of the unfinished foundation, which is to be demolished to make way for the larger base called for in the new design. The congregation will move into that section once it is complete, at which point the existing house will be torn down to make way for the second half of the new building.

Although the cozy old home has been loved for nearly six decades, it will not likely be missed.

“God is doing a new thing,” Benjamin said. “Out with the old, in with the new.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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