Historically Black congregation rises from the ashes following devastating fire

Lightning struck the 155-year-old church last year
Gabriel Chapel A.M.E Zion church.jpg
Posted at 6:57 AM, Aug 20, 2021

CHESAPEAKE, Va. - Pastor Sandi Hutchinson has no other way to explain it. The fire that destroyed her church, a 155-year-old institution in Chesapeake, was heaven-sent.

"Insurance describes lightning as an act of God," she says. "Because I consider this an act of God, I look forward to the new."

Construction crews are set to break ground on the new Gabriel Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church Saturday morning. 357 days after an all-consuming fire robbed the Cuffeytown community of the only church it's ever known, a new one will begin to rise from the ashes.

"I believe God had a plan for it not coming back right away. I needed to build the, the people, I needed to build them up emotionally. I needed to build them up spiritually," Hutchinson tells News 3 anchor Blaine Stewart.

The land on Long Ridge Road is more than just where a church building once stood. It is both a connection to this congregation's past and now a bridge to its future.

"People's history was a part of that building."

Cuffeytown has been here since the mid-1700s. It was the first self-sustaining African American community in Virginia. Free Black people built the original church three years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Its rebirth, 155 years later, is built by the next generation of believers.

"I can't even put into words what it means to me to be a part of the building back of this church, the building back of this community of people who have attended here," Hutchinson says.

Building back on the bedrock laid by their ancestors. And a foundation of faith.

"The Bible says he will give you beauty for ashes. I never literally understood what that meant. But now I absolutely do."

Saturday's groundbreaking ceremony is open to everyone. It starts at 10:30 a.m. at the church site at 2216 Long Ridge Rd. There will be a back-to-school supply giveaway, ice cream and snow cones for the kids, and COVID vaccine information at the event.