After losing a battle against legislation that limits the expansion of their churches, a coalition of Prince George’s County pastors joined together to challenge the county’s political powers to ensure better representation for themselves and their constituents. The group, still in formation mode, is determining how they can best serve the community.
In 2005 the Rev. Nathaniel Thomas and members of the Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church in Maryland moved to a more spacious church home with high hopes of expanding their ministry. Today, Thomas says his dreams have literally gone up in the air because the church is located in an expansion restricted zone controlled by Joint Base Andrews, which doesn’t allow them to grow up or out.
“We had plans to build housing for seniors and to do other things but now we can’t,” Thomas told the AFRO. “We’ve had that property since 1952. That property was for the purposes to do ministry and to expand.”
While Thomas can’t change the actions of the Prince George’s County Council, which voted for zoning changes in 2016, he has organized the Faith Community United to Protect Houses of Worship coalition, including the Rev. Lincoln Burruss, Jr., Central Baptist Church in Camp Springs, Md.; the Rev. Harold L. Dugger, First Baptist Church of Capitol Heights; and the Rev. Victor Kirk, Sharon Bible Fellowship in Lanham, Md. among others, to challenge political leaders in the future.
“We can’t use our property because of these restrictions,” Thomas said. “They said it is because of safety that we can’t expand our property to more than 25 percent of our existing space, but we maintain that a plane can fall anywhere. The plane that crashed in Clinton – that was beyond the restricted zone.” In April an F-16 military jet crashed soon after taking off from Joint Base Andrews. The pilot parachuted to safety.
Midget Parker, a lawyer who represents Thomas and a coalition of about 30 other ministers who are opposed to the overlay, told the AFRO, “Initially the military claimed they were concerned about public safety in case of an emergency and looking back at it now – the outcome after two years of work is better coordination between the military and the government.”
Even though the ministers lost the overlay battle, they are working together to confront the government on other matters they consider unfair to residents in the county, such as their fight against a phase of the overlay that would restrict the number of people allowed in a building.
According to Thomas, the ministers fussed about the issue so much the bill died in committee.
A 2007 Maryland Park and Planning Report says Prince George’s County was rural when Andrews AFB was established in 1941. Areas south and east of the installation remained fully rural until the 1960s.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the D.C. area experienced rapid growth but development in and around Andrews AFB has been limited to the adjacent Capital Beltway corridor west of the installation. “This is a misrepresentation. Right across from our church is a department store. Our church can seat 175, the department store has hundreds of people coming and going. This zone is restricting the churches from growing,” Bishop Mel Wills, pastor of the Pillars of Faith Ministry in Forestville, Md., told the AFRO.