By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Senior Pastor Sandi Brandon Hutchison was awakened from her sleep in the early morning hours of August 28 three years ago and told the church she pastored was burning to the ground.
This year on the morning of September 10, she stood in the pulpit preaching a sermon highlighting the Resurrection of the Gabriel Chapel A.M.E. Zion during the first gathering in the church’s new sanctuary in Chesapeake’s historic Cuffeytown community,
Along with long-time parishioners, the new pews were filled with also with political and civic leaders from around Hampton Roads, including Congressman Robert Scott, and Senator Louise Lucas.
The former Gabriel Chapel A.M.E. Zion was destroyed by fire after lightning struck the historic sanctuary.
After the fire brigade finished working to save it, the dawn’s early light revealed sections of red brick walls.
Hutchison told a local news outlet then that her knees buckled under her as firefighters worked to save the building.
Shortly thereafter, Hutchison and her congregation began working to resurrect the 165-year-old church.
The city approved it with reservations because, it said, if the building were restored, it would be at risk again because of a lack of reliable water sources for fire and other factors.
The original church was a wooden structure that was years later wrapped in brick. This may have hastened the intensity of the destructive force of the fire.
Also, the church did not have a fire insurance agreement to “replace” the facility but instead had a “face value” policy.
So, Hutchison and her followers had to organize a fundraising effort.
Hutchison said that the church is still some $400,000 short, but fundraising ideas like selling stained glass windows to congregants and supporters have been a source of income.
Her contractor has been a sympathetic and reliable one; experienced in rebuilding churches.
To meet the city’s building code requirements, the new building now has a skeleton of mostly steel and is outfitted with other fire-resistant materials and features to bring it up to state and city building codes to prevent future fires.
During its rebuilding period, Hutchison said the business of operating the church continued. The congregation met mostly virtually.
Now that the church has been resurrected, it will continue as a fixture of Cuffeytown, a free Black community before the Civil War that created business, educational, and religious institutions, such as Gabriel A.M.E. for its inhabitants.
Rev. Hutchinson told the GUIDE last year as the church was being rebuilt, “When members drive by or walk through, they see bricks laid and work done, which gives them hope. Their faith is strengthened to believe their church home will soon be restored. This gives us all the faith and strength to see it all through.”
“We have a lot of faithful members,” she said. “We have people in their 90s whose parents were married and baptized in the old sanctuary. They know the church is coming back and they are supportive and patient.”
“Faith is powerful,” she said.