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Crossroads of growth

The Rev. Tom Sherer of Covenant Presbyterian Church talks recently about the growth around his church at the intersection of Mount Gallant Road, in background, and Celanese Road, background left, in Rock Hill.
The Rev. Tom Sherer of Covenant Presbyterian Church talks recently about the growth around his church at the intersection of Mount Gallant Road, in background, and Celanese Road, background left, in Rock Hill.

Clara Stanley can still remember the days when her church stood on a two-lane country road called S.C. 161.

Today, the road is a seven-lane highway, Stanley is 93 and little around Covenant Presbyterian is the same as it was then. "It's hard to believe I used to walk," Stanley said. "Now, I wouldn't dare cross that road."

An even bigger change looms for the 230-member congregation: A planned shopping center would bring cars and customers to within steps of the church's back doors.

At a time when not-in-my-backyard battles over growth are raging across York County, the church at the corner of S.C. 161 and Mount Gallant Road has chosen a different tack: It is embracing the changing landscape.

"This church is sort of on the leading edge of growth," said the Rev. Tom Sherer. "It's sort of like everything is coming into our backyard. You don't have to go very far to find new members."

An unfamiliar role

Sherer, pastor at Covenant for nearly five years, admits he feels more comfortable interpreting the Gospels than right-of-way access and rezoning.

But the church's location at one of the busiest intersections in York County has thrust him into a new role. Over the past year, Sherer has hosted three different developers in his office to hear about possibilities for a 30-acre property behind the church.

Shops and a grocery store are envisioned along with townhouses to be built later, though no plans have been disclosed.

The wooded property, once home to a dairy farm, is considered one of the most valuable undeveloped tracts in Rock Hill. More than 36,000 cars pass by daily, almost 10,000 more than the traffic count on Dave Lyle Boulevard, state figures show.

Covenant does not own the land, but developers will likely need permission to build an entrance road crossing part of the church's property. That means Sherer and church leaders will get a major say in what happens.

Looking to next generation

Church members know they can look forward to more noise and traffic. But in the plans for new homes, they also see the chance to attract new members to lead in future generations. And maybe a new parking lot, too -- the developers are open to sharing the shopping center lot on Sunday mornings.

"We're Presbyterians," said church treasurer Ed Kelly. "We don't mind a shopping center going up back there. No doubt it's coming. We'll just do what we can and ask God to guide us."

Kelly and others talk about the future without the skepticism or suspicion that often greets new development. Instead, they seem ready for their once quiet corner to take on more bustle.

"The shopping center's not going to bother the church," said 88-year-old charter member Roland Harper.

Mount Gallant will be widened beginning next year as part of York County's "Pennies for Progress" road improvements program. Across that road from the church, a Walgreen's is being built to serve the growing number of homes nearby.

Covenant's flock sees opportunity in the changes.

"Rarely does a Sunday go by that we do not have first-time visitors," Sherer said. "This corner is a place God has put us to do ministry. It will be even more important as the development continues around us."

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