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Published: Monday, 1/6/2014 - Updated: 7 months ago

Church homeless, not hopeless

Congregation worships at UT in wake of destructive blaze

BY TAYLOR DUNGJEN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Members of St. Mark Baptist Church hold service at the Driscoll Alumni Center Auditorium at the University of Toledo. The church met at the center for the first time after their church was destroyed in a fire on Friday. Members of St. Mark Baptist Church hold service at the Driscoll Alumni Center Auditorium at the University of Toledo. The church met at the center for the first time after their church was destroyed in a fire on Friday.
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Among the rubble was a reminder of faith.

Cradled in Curly Johnson’s hands, wrapped in a white plastic bag, was a Bible that survived the massive fire which destroyed St. Mark Baptist Church on Friday.

“It’s amazing,” The Rev. Curly Johnson said. “We’re going to keep this one. God blessed us.”

More than 150 people attended St. Mark Pastor I.J. Johnson’s services on Sunday morning at the University of Toledo’s Driscoll Alumni Center, a temporary meeting place while the congregation’s leaders figure out a more semipermanent plan.

PHOTO GALLERY: Members of St. Mark Baptist Church meet at UT

Pastor Curly Johnson is the son of the elder Pastor Johnson.

Their physical church, the 111-year-old building at 1419 N. Detroit Ave., burned to the ground despite an hours-long battle to contain the fire, which was first reported at 2:58 p.m.

Fire officials said on Friday night that the cause of the blaze was undetermined; officials could not be reached on Sunday for an updated status.

Pastor Curley Johnson of St. Mark Baptist Church looks at a charred bible retrieved from the remains of their church on Detroit Ave. Pastor Curley Johnson of St. Mark Baptist Church looks at a charred bible retrieved from the remains of their church on Detroit Ave.
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The overwhelming message of the Sunday worship was that the building in Toledo’s central city was lost but hope remains.

“The church wasn’t burned, it was the building. The church is still standing,” said Pastor Johnson, 86, who has presided over the congregation for 58 years.

Sunday’s hour-long services were bittersweet — they were the first of the new year and the fire created an uncertain future.

Pastor Johnson said there are plans to rebuild the church but that could take months.

The services were happy, although several people wiped tears from their eyes when Pastor Curly Johnson addressed the congregation.

“In a way, we’re homeless, but we’re not Godless,” he said. He said he was thankful that, despite the great loss of the building, no injuries were reported.

Members of the congregation still smiled and laughed and hugged one another. They sang, and stood, and clapped when the choir sang.

They still asked, “How is your mother?”

Faye Lyons, left, and Brian Williams hug during a service of St. Mark Baptist Church. Faye Lyons, left, and Brian Williams hug during a service of St. Mark Baptist Church.
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“The only thing that was different was the four walls,” said Travil Lamb of Toledo. “We’ll be at home no matter where we are.”

Faye Lyons, a 49-year member of the church, agreed.

For her and her husband, Mark, the building was significant — it was where they were married in 1988 — but the people and the pastor and God are what matter more.

“God is awesome,” Mrs. Lyons said. “It does not matter where we are.”

Church officials said they will announce a location for next Sunday’s services later this week.

The services at the alumni center were coordinated with the help of former mayors Jack Ford and Carty Finkbeiner.

“Jack called me at 6 p.m. on Friday and said St. Mark burned,“ Mr. Finkbeiner said. “I. J. Johnson has been a loyal friend for years when others might criticize. We’re going to help him.”

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: tdungjen@thebalde.com, 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @taylordungjen.



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