For decades, the members of Christ Lutheran Church took their oak altar, with its attached set of rollers, with them as they moved from place to place to worship. Now those days are over.
“I now feel we have a home — we can now take the wheels off the altar,” joked Christ Lutheran member Glenn Shriver of Hyattsville during a joint dedication service on June 1 at the congregation’s historic white church on Davis Mill Road in Cedar Grove.
Christ Lutheran had been renting the church from Upper Seneca Baptist Church since 1991 and in March bought it from Upper Seneca for $360,000.
The transaction give Christ Lutheran a permanent home and Upper Seneca the resources it needed to lower the mortgage on the new and larger brick church it had bought close by in 1990.
After an evening of memories, laughter, prayer and music, the churches’ two pastors joined hands to bless each other’s congregations.
“It is with joy that we can pass the torch to this congregation,” said Pastor Gayle Clifton with Upper Seneca.
Although the Lutherans and Baptists observe different traditions, they share the same mission, which is to spread the Gospel, they said.
“These are only buildings but you are the Word that we seek to broadcast in as many ways as we can,” said Pastor Irvin Stapf of Christ Lutheran.
For more than a decade, the two churches had a landlord-tenant relationship, but last fall, things started to shift.
“It’s kind of a blessing,” said Christ Lutheran’s Bruce Gladhill of Damascus. “It kind of snowballed.”
Founded in 1805, Upper Seneca was the first Baptist congregation in Montgomery County, meeting in a log cabin during its early days.
In 1889, Oliver Talmage Watkins and his wife donated an acre on Davis Mill Road just east of Md. 27 for what would become the wood-frame church that later expanded with additions, a portico and stained glass windows.
In the late 1980s, the growing congregation decided to build a new and larger brick church on the east side of its adjacent cemetery, and in 1991 Upper Seneca began leasing the historic church to Christ Lutheran.
“The old church was not big enough,” said lifelong Baptist Sandy Rogers. “We were having to go to two services on Sundays.”
Meanwhile, Christ Lutheran had gotten its start in 1976 when 40 families from Damascus and Clarksburg left the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Damascus to start their own more conservative Lutheran church.
They met in a house in Ijamsville and at Clarksburg Elementary School and Seventh-day Adventist and Methodist churches before deciding to lease Seneca Baptist for what would become 23 years.
Recently, members of the congregation began thinking it might be better financially to try to buy the old church instead of continuing to pay rent.
“Two years ago, the money wasn’t there yet,” Gladhill said.
But then Stapf issued a letter to the congregation inviting anyone with $10,000 or more to loan the church the money.
“We became our own bank,” Gladhill said. “Five or six families were willing to lend money at 3 percent over 10 years. All of a sudden, it was the right time.”
The church approached Upper Seneca, and on one Sunday morning, Clifton invited his congregation to talk over the idea of accepting the offer.
Opinions were divided.
Jane Watkins Gartner is a member of the Watkins family that donated the land for the historic church who started going to Upper Seneca at the age of 3, but she thought it was an idea whose time had come.
“I have many fond memories at USBC, but I will say that when Christ Lutheran asked to purchase the church I was delighted — no doubts or questions on my part,” she wrote in an email.
“It was a win-win for both churches, and I am so thankful for their congregation and the way they have maintained the church for the past 23 plus years,” she wrote.
Sandy Rogers of Mount Airy, who also grew up in Upper Seneca, had a tougher time of fit.
On Sunday evening, she recounted a tale about the church’s early days when circuit-rider preachers drew people from miles around and filled the church to overflowing.
So inspired were the listeners standing outside the windows that they fired their guns, said Rogers, bringing a laugh from the church audience.
Rogers said she got married in the church in 1970, and her children were baptized there.
“It was agony for me to let go,” said Rogers, who wrestled with the idea of the sale for three days, asking one night for God’s help.
“He said, ‘You have your memories, your pillars ... you can make new memories [in the new church], and you get to keep your old ones,’” she said about the response.
“It was not something we necessarily wanted to do, but it was time,” Rogers said. “We already had a congregation that we knew loved this church, plus they’re right next door. We can still share the church, and we still have the cemetery.”
Clifton also said the sale brought in enough cash to enable Upper Seneca to pay down 75 to 80 percent of the mortgage on its current brick church.
“We need to appreciate the past and look to the future,” he said.