by Carly Shonbrun-Siege
July 11, 2019
The Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church in Annapolis, Md., can easily be described as a centerpiece of the community. Adjoining the church is a 150-year-old cemetery that houses the graves of local community members, including former slaves and their descendants, including descendants of abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
The church recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to recognize the completion of their stream and wetland restoration project, a collaborative effort supported by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Anne Arundel County Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, Anne Arundel Watershed Stewards Academy, Chesapeake Bay Trust, RiverWise Congregation Program, Stormwater Maintenance & Consulting (SMC), Cemetery Archives and Preservation Ministry of the Church, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.
“Today is a dedication to the past and a celebration of the future,” Kate Fritz, the executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, announced to the crowd of congregants and watershed stewards. Fritz said the project was meant “[to] benefit the entire community [by] sending cleaner water down to the Chesapeake Bay for everyone to enjoy.”
Congregant Frances George, almost 95 years old, was led to cut the ribbon by her grand-daughter, Mattie Wallace. Most people present at the ribbon-cutting had been attending church services at Asbury Broadneck their entire lives, and had mothers, fathers and siblings buried in the cemetery. Along with its oldest members were some of its youngest as well; a group of about 20 children from the church’s summer camp attended to experience the celebration of the project first-hand.
To honor the heritage and legacy of these sacred grounds, Reverend Jerry Colbert of John Wesley United Methodist Church, led the congregants in prayer. “We thank all those who labored so hard to make this project come about,” he said. “We thank you for this restoration. We thank you for this clean Earth, the clean water, the clean air that we breathe… Thank you for the river behind us.”
This event marked the completion of a project years in the making. Over the past decade, church members noticed that flooding in the historic cemetery was growing worse, often burying the graves underwater. Then, in June 2015, a massive storm flooded the cemetery, destroying the historic gravesites as well as the surrounding environment, which led the church to seek funding for this project.
“Something had to be done to prevent the desecration by water and erosion to the potential loss of this sacred space,” explained Randy Rowel, Jr., a member of the congregation and a graduate of Anne Arundel County’s Watershed Stewards Academy. He and the other congregants involved in the project describe themselves as the Stormwater Disciples. He began investigating ways the community could solve the problem and started reaching out to colleagues and members of the community.
It turns out that many people and organizations in the area wanted to work together to create a “solution that is both good for the environment and for patrons to have the ability to look out and enjoy their surroundings,” as Rowel described. With engineering and construction help from SMC, a comprehensive wetland restoration plan was devised encompassing multiple techniques, from an imbricated stone channel to the regenerative stormwater conveyance system to the multiple step pools that absorb pollutants in rainwater runoff. According to Eric Ettenhofer from SMC, “[We] compile[d] techniques together in a way that didn't take away from the surroundings, but enhanced it, while also giving people the ability to not be blocked off.”
The community involvement didn’t stop at the planning stages—more than 20 members of the congregation completed a 10-hour RiverWise Congregation training. These congregants will be responsible for educating the church on environmental issues, repairing graves and maintaining the vegetation that surrounds the cemetery—including 40 different species of native plants.
The real work, however, will be done by the children., “They’re the ones that will be responsible to take care of it,” Rowel said. “[We are] using this project as a springboard to encourage careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) [and] in stormwater management.”
After leading the kids on a tour of the restoration project, Rowel explained to them the significance of their presence. “Some of your grandparents and great grandparents are buried here,” he explained. “You will be in charge of this project…of preserving our ancestral lineage.”
A dozen or so little hands went up to ask questions, and the very first one was “How can I help?”
“You guys can come in and clean out all the weeds and invasives, explained Rowell, “You can even do some planting.” He went over how the step well captures pollutants before they enter the Bay, and how that was “keeping the water clean so you guys can keep swimming in the Chesapeake Bay.” He identified the nearby plants and led the kids to the pond to observe the tadpoles, which the children called the baby frogs.
“All of you were seeds at one point, and now you’re all trees and baby plants,” Randy told the group, “so plant a seed and you guys will grow along with it.”
To see the restoration project for yourself, watch this video from WMAR-2 News.