Rock Hill church members pack courtroom in fight over firing pastor

07/15/2013 11:43 PM

07/15/2013 11:54 PM

There was no preaching, no prayers and not a single “amen” Monday in a York County court convened solely for members of Flint Hill Baptist Church.

Just lawyers, a judge and a deputy to keep order.

There was plenty of finger-pointing among people who have worshipped together for decades but are now so divided that deacons are accusing each other of issuing suspensions without merit.

The accusations were so heated that court testimony Monday showed locks changed on sanctuary doors, “no trespassing” signs, and an attempted coup by the membership in an attempt to remove the Rev. Cedric Maddox as pastor.

For several weeks, no formal services were held in the locked church, while some members held services outdoors in the summer heat.

More than 75 members of the Rock Hill church wedged themselves shoulder to shoulder into the courtroom of Master-in-Equity Judge Jack Kimball, who is hearing testimony about whether he should issue a temporary injunction to keep Maddox in the pulpit.

Some stood three-deep in the back just to hear it all.

The predominantly black church – a fixture in Rock Hill for nine decades – has survived arson, but the division over who runs the church and who can call a meeting for the congregation to vote on keeping the pastor threatens its future.

Before the hearing, people waiting to get into the courtroom spilled out onto the sidewalks and even across the street.

There was so much testimony that the 3 p.m. hearing ran past 5 p.m., so Kimball adjourned until Tuesday.

After locks were changed last month by members who want to oust Maddox, Kimball issued a temporary restraining order reopening the church until the civil lawsuit brought by Maddox and some deacons – claiming the vote to oust Maddox was illegal – is resolved.

Other deacons are defendants in the lawsuit after they and many members held a Feb. 28 vote to sever Maddox’s service. One trustee strode to the pulpit earlier in February and told the congregation that a meeting would be held to vote on Maddox’s future.

But Maddox, pastor since 2008, and other deacons balked, claiming the meeting was not proper under church by-laws.

So for five months, Flint Hill Baptist has swayed in a gale of arguments that finally required courts. Emotions ran so high Monday that Kimball told the audience he wanted quiet and didn’t want anyone offering answers to those testifying.

“You are all welcome to stay, but the number of people here has nothing to do with the legal issues involved,” Kimball told the packed house.

The issues before the court, Kimball said, are whether the meeting held to fire Maddox was proper and whether church by-laws were followed.

Testimony Monday showed that after a few deacons, trustees and members tried to fire Maddox, other deacons “suspended” the dissident deacons at the behest of Maddox.

Billy Hammett, chairman of the deacons, testified that those trying to get rid of Maddox held a vote that was not called by him, so it was not sanctioned.

Herb Hamilton, lawyer for the defendants, said church rules provide no authority to suspend. The church membership, which decides Baptist policies, never had a chance to vote on the suspension that the deacons took on themselves, he argued.

Although the legal issues are about whether church process has been followed, the concern was clear on both sides about the ability of the church to continue to serve the community.

Hamilton said in court that the controversy and concern has given his clients “substantial concern over the future of the church.”

In the gallery were people who have attended the church for 70, even 80, years. Many shook their heads during the hearing over how the church had moved from its mission of helping people to courtrooms and lawyers and judges.

Some whispered prayers during the court proceedings.

When Kimball adjourned for the day, there were no handshakes and hugs as there have been for 89 years after services at Flint Hill Baptist Church.

Just huddles with lawyers, and a church still divided amid uncertainty until Judge Kimball decides how to try to keep the peace at a church fractured.

The membership filed out of the courtroom in near-silence, rather than in the joy of worship.

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