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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
Sharp Street United Methodist Church is celebrating its 195th anniversary, and while much has changed in nearly two centuries, the heart of Sharp Street remains the same.
The Rev. Dr. Kecia Ford, pastor of the church for the past 10 years, says the church reached the milestone with “a lot of prayer and faith.”
“This anniversary celebration is an opportunity for us to reflect on our how far we have come as a church and our influence and tremendous contributions in the community,” Ford said. “We will also recognize the many opportunities that exist in making a greater impact today and in the future.”
Founded in 1822, Sharp Street United Methodist Church is considered the oldest independent African-American church in Montgomery County.
The land on which the church stands, at 1310 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, was deeded to free blacks in Sandy Spring by Quaker Friends, according to a history provided by the church.
Since its founding, the church has maintained a vital presence in the community and has evolved into a place of worship and educational, social and cultural institution serving African-Americans in the county.
Many of the members of the congregation are descendants of the early families that founded the church.
“Because of that, we have an elderly congregation,” Ford said. “And we have a close-knit relationship with the Friends because of our history. We continue to do special events and projects together.”
Sharp Street is “home” to many of its congregants.
James “Sweetman” Offord, 90, grew up attending Sharp Street.
“That was the segregated era and it was the only church we had access to,” he said. “I get a special feeling when I come here. This church has always been in me.”
Although Offord now lives in Colesville, if there is something going on at the church, he makes a point to be there.
Earl Claggett, 88, of Ashton said he has attended Sharp Street as far back as he can remember.
“It’s a very old church,” he said. “My grandparents used to come here. It used to be all Sandy Spring people, but now they come from other places.”
For Gwen Bell of Brookeville, Sharp Street is the only church she has ever belonged to. Her parents and grandparents belonged, as well.
“It’s where my heart is and is like home to me,” she said. “I have no intention of going anyplace else.”
Bell has vivid memories of attending church as a child — of her grandfather, whom she described as a very pious man — standing up and testifying in church “whenever the spirit moved him” and also of playing hide-and-seek under the very large oak trees on the church property.
She said church events, such as picnics, parades, homecomings, holiday celebrations and children’s plays, were always a very big deal.
And while Bell clings to past memories, she recognizes that the church has evolved.
“In my childhood, it was very generational because it was one of only a few black churches around,” she said. “A lot of today’s congregation is new to the area, and while they don’t always share the history, they are always welcome.”
Ford said that other than the church’s longevity, what she finds special about Sharp Street is the caring people.
“No congregation is perfect,” she said. “But these people really love and support the youth and children. They all take care of each other.”
A proud history
The early settlers in Sandy Spring were Quakers who brought to the area their scientific acumen and sense of fairness and social equality.
The Sandy Spring Meeting House was established in 1753.
Sharp Street Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1822.
The name “Sharp Street” was taken from the church of that name in Baltimore, founded in 1802, and considered to be the mother of black Methodism in Maryland, according to the church History Committee.
In 1826, James P. Stabler gave one acre of land for 10 cents for the “Sandy Spring Colored Church” with the stipulation that the enclaves people of Sandy Spring use it for the church only, according to the history provided by the church committee. If not, the land would return to him.
Because of the then-current laws in Maryland, it was necessary for a white person to act as trustee on the title. James P. Stabler designated William Thomas and Basil Brooke as trustees for the purpose of administration.
On April 24, 1855, a deed was recorded from Thomas S. Brooke and Sophia Annette Brooke, his wife, to William Stabler, Richard T. Bentley and Alban Gilpin, in which the Brookes conveyed three-quarters of an acre of land for the sum of $40 for the cemetery on Brooke Road, according to the History Committee.
Change at the church has been slow.
“You have some natural changes because people die,” the pastor said. “And some of the children stop coming after they go away to college, but a lot of them eventually end up coming back.”
However, the church’s building committee is looking at potential growth because the church does not have enough room for all of its ministries. Ford said members are considering renovating the church and adding an addition.
“That will, in turn, help us to bring in more people,” she said.
Ford does not know how much longer she will be at Sharp Street because as part of the United Methodist Church, the bishop and the Bishop’s Cabinet decide the assignment of pastors.
But whether it is under her leadership or that of someone else, she is confident that Sharp Street will continue to thrive.
“It’s the ethic of the community within the church,” she said. “We are proud of our history and love our family connections, but are also welcoming to those without connections. The history and the stories passed down and the relationships with the Friends and Quakers means the world to this church.”
She added: “We are very excited to celebrate this anniversary and grateful to God that the church is still standing. We are celebrating what God has done in the history of this church.”
Sharp Street celebrated its 195th anniversary with a Community Day Celebration on Sept. 23 and a Worship Service on Sept. 27.
Upcoming events include:
Revival Worship Service, 7:15 p.m. Oct. 11, at the church, 1310 Olney-Sandy Spring Road — Rev. Leonard P. Massie Jr., pastor of Resurrection Baptist Church in Silver Spring, will deliver a message, joined by the gospel choir from Resurrection Baptist.
Anniversary and Homecoming Service, 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Oct. 15, at the church — 3 p.m. service will feature Rev. R. David Hall, pastor at McKendree United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., and the Anniversary/Homecoming Choir, with guest director June Johnson.
195th Anniversary Black and White Ball, 7 p.m. Oct. 13, Martin’s Crosswinds in Greenbelt — Dinner and special entertainment.
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