ROCK HILL — For 89 years, Sunday at Flint Hill Baptist Church has been the Lord’s day.
It is a church that has delivered a million meals to shut-ins, given away closets of clothes and pantries of food. It has taken in the lost, the homeless, the poor and broken.
It is one of Rock Hill’s oldest and most respected historically black churches. Its members have raised doctors and lawyers and preachers and teachers.
University of South Carolina football star Jadeveon Clowney, the biggest sports star in college sports, grew up in this church, where his family has attended forever.
It is, in the words of the Rev. Osbey Roddey, who sits on the Rock Hill City Council, an “anchor” in the community.
But for the last several Sundays, the church has been locked up. Services have been held outside in the hot sun.
The locks were changed in a fight over control of the church.
An ongoing dispute over the attempted firing of the church pastor and deacons and trustees in April has moved past discussion among people who have worshipped together for decades to the realm of judges and disputes governed not by God, but by the laws of man.
The private squabble turned public lawsuit has come to the point where a judge wrote last week that the power struggle “could have an irreparable impact on the stability or viability of the church.”
“I simply can’t fathom it in a house of God,” said the Rev. Walter White, a former Flint Hill pastor.
The dispute has become so rancorous that “no trespassing” signs appeared on the grounds, put up by members who claim to be in charge to try to keep the pastor, the Rev. Cedric Maddox, and others out.
The locks to the church doors and offices were changed by parishioners now being sued by Maddox and other parishioners. Visitors have been turned away by both people and the signs.
Roddey, the pastor at Langrum Branch Baptist Church in York, helped work out disputes at predominantly black Baptist churches for years during his tenure as moderator of the upper division of York County churches for the Sandy River Baptist Association.
“It is a sad situation in that now the courts have had to become involved,” he said.
In the lawsuit, Maddox is asking a judge to re-install him and other church leaders. No one involved in the case who could be reached last week would comment.
Judge Jack Kimball, York County’s master-in-equity who handles non-jury civil cases, issued a temporary restraining order Monday, ordering that the locks that were changed be restored and keys given back to the pastor and deacons.
He ordered one person from each side of the dispute to work together to make sure church bills are paid.
Kimball wrote that the pastor and deacons have made a sufficient showing that they likely would win in court, but he scheduled a July 15 hearing to determine whether to make the temporary restraining order an injunction to last until the court case is resolved.
The dispute is plainly over who runs the church.
A group of parishioners upset with the direction of the church voted in April to fire Maddox, who has been pastor since 2008. Maddox and a few deacons and trustees claimed the action was not taken according to church bylaws since a quorum of members was not in attendance for the vote.
Discussions that largely amounted to finger-pointed ensued, but the tensions became so elevated that church has been held outside the sanctuary on recent Sundays.
Rock Hill police officers have been dispatched to the church grounds, where several people have asked officers to settle the complaints.
“We have told them this is a civil matter, that we have no role,” police spokesman Mark Bollinger said. “We have been asked to intervene and made it clear we can’t.”
The Rev. J. Thomas Barber of Rock Hill’s Boyd Hill Baptist Church, the current moderator of the Sandy River Baptist Association of which Flint Hill is a member, held several meetings to try to work out the dispute.
The association can advise the church, he said, but has no role in determining who the pastor is.
A last-ditch effort two weeks ago, during which five local Baptist pastors met with people involved in the dispute to try to broker a peace, failed.
The two sides would not even sit down together and discuss it, Barber said.
“The church membership votes in the pastor and the church membership can vote out a pastor,” Barber said. “They have asked us to decide, but we can’t decide. We have tried to get both sides together but have not been able to do that.
“And now, unfortunately, it is in the courts for a decision.”
Baptist rules, the local pastors say, dictate that a majority vote of the congregation can decide issues.
What’s at issue here is what constitutes a majority, and whether the April 15 meeting at which the vote was taken to fire the pastor was legal under church bylaws.
But regardless of who wins in court, this church of great people and great deeds and big hearts might be the loser.
Will a church that has withstood segregation and a devastating fire, only to rebuild stronger than ever, survive internal strife?
Maddox declined to comment on the suit last week, referring questions to the head of the deacon board, Billy Hammett. Hammett, one of the plaintiffs in the court case siding with Maddox, could not be reached last week.
No other people involved in the lawsuit who could be reached were willing to talk about the dispute publicly.
So now the talking will be done in court by lawyers and Judge Kimball. It will cost money, as lawyers do not work for free.
And a group of the faithful, inspired by God, will not decide the case.
A judge will.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org