Told it would never happen colored congregations raises church from the ashes of doubt
By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal & Guide
August highlights the hottest and the last full month of the summer.
It has ushered in a period of war and peace, death and fortune.
For the congregation of the century-and-half-old Gabriel Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, it has marked destruction, hope, and revival.
In the early morning hours of August 28, 2020, lightning struck the historic church located in Chesapeake. When the fire brigade finished working to save it, the dawn’s light only revealed sections of red brick walls.
Earlier, Senior Pastor Rev. Sandi Brandon Hutchinson was summoned from her bed and rushed over to see her church being ravaged by fire and burning to the ground.
She told a local news outlet that her knees buckled under her as she witnessed the sight.
She and her congregation were shocked and homeless at the same time as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic converged on the region.
The fire destroyed the church and everything in it but not the congregation’s faith that it could rebuild, as virtual services became the norm for Gabriel Chapel and other congregations in Virginia and elsewhere.
In the hope of rebuilding the church, a fundraising campaign was waged and support locally and nationally poured in to help.
While an act of nature created the motivation to rebuild, they faced some unexpected challenges and hurdles laid before them by man.
The city of Chesapeake rezoned to residential the land where the church had sat for 154 years.
Hutchison said she lobbied the Planning Commission and City Council to consider issuing a Conditional Use Permit.
“We were initially told that once the church was destroyed, the church was no longer compatible with the future growth as planned for that community,” Hutchison told the GUIDE.
“The rezoning, changing demographics, and developers had a plan for that land to be used for residential purposes.”
“In addition,” Rev. Hutchison said, “there were major hurdles that were out pricing us from building.”
Financially, Hutchison said it was a struggle as Covid-19 greatly impacted the pricing for materials needed to rebuild.
“We had a face value policy, not a replacement value policy so there were not enough funds to build back in this current market,” she said.
“We have had numerous donors and hope to receive more donations to complete the church by early 2023.”
There was also the cost of a compatible commercial septic system to meet current codes that could only be approved by the State Health Department since there is no city water in the community.
In late August of 2021, a groundbreaking was held, consisting of church leadership laying down materials and dirt on the church’s property. This was a signal that the congregation knew a ray of hope was shining through the clouds of administrative clouds.
With the help of some City Council members, the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club of Hampton Roads, and the coalition of Black Pastors in the City of Chesapeake, Hutchison said “I finally received a permit to re-build in March of 2022, nearly two years after the fire.”
Dr. Hutchison said she was optimistic about a new church and that the lightning strike served as a euphemism.
“In the insurance policy it says lightning is an act of God,” Rev. Hutchinson said. “I thought about that, and I reminded them that this event is described as an act of God and nature. Therefore, He will not let this work go unfinished.”
With the steel frame of the new church now complete, on August 6, 2022, their hard work and prayers were realized.
Members of the same fire brigade which put out the fire two years earlier, which destroyed the old church conducted the “Topping Out Ceremony” giving birth to the new one.
The firemen in a hoisting bucket affixed the state of Virginia flag and Christian Church Banner to the last iron beam which was tacked into place and will support the roof of the new church at its old address of 2216 Long Ridge Road in Chesapeake.
According to Rev. Hutchinson, the new church will be 8200 square feet; slightly larger than the 6200 square foot edifice which burned down.
The church has called the Cuffeytown community of Chesapeake home for over 150 years. It was built by Blacks three years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was one of the first self-sustaining African-American communities in Virginia.
Also, a part of the church community is the cemetery which inters 13 Afro-Union Soldiers from the Civil War.
Rev. Hutchison said the church still conducts Bible Study by phone and virtual church through its Facebook page.
She said that the virtual gatherings have not negatively impacted the number of worshippers. In fact, she credits the virtual platform for helping older members, because of COVID or other reasons, master the ability to navigate the Internet and participate in services.
“My congregants and I had been told by people numerous times that we would never put the church back on that property,” she said.
“I was relentless in my belief that the land on which Gabriel Chapel AME Zion Church was built in 1866 should remain Holy Ground for a place of worship.”
Hutchison said she and her congregation hope to be in their new church in February of 2023.