The Shady Grove Independent Church congregation has faced a lot of obstacles to its existence and ministry since it was established by former slaves 188 years ago.
In 1823, the slaves would periodically escape from their owners and meet in secret places to worship on Carmack Hill at Brush Harbor, a community near Winnsboro.
Those original charter members of the congregation were often punished by their slave owners for praying and worshipping at Carmack Hill.
According to current church members who are descendants of the original nine slaves, the slave were beaten publicly but continued to worship God in their own way.
The worshipping community emerged from this heritage of oppression and suffering to become associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1919. That partnership was advantageous for years but according to the current congregants the relationship became oppressive to their ministry efforts.
The church members continued to support the A.M.E church and its conference, however in recent years the parish came under financial hardship.
Members say that the assessments levied upon them by the A.M.E. .church became too great a burden.
Attendance suffered and several members left the church. This dire straits led to the congregation’s charting a new course in 2011.
They voted unanimously to leave the A.M.E. church and establish themselves as an independent worshipping entity.
Church secretary Jean McCrory, said that the church was then sued by the A.M.E. Church because the organization claimed that if the congregation left the church that it would have to forfeit its building to the A.M.E.
For the congregation, this was unacceptable. The core of the building where they currently worship had been there since the 1880s and they wanted to hold onto their local roots. Also, they had seen other local church buildings fall into disrepair once they left the AME. and they did not want their sanctuary to face that fate.
This 75-person congregation, which has around 50 active members, had asked for financial assistance from the A.M.E. Church to meet its heating, electricity and other bills but those efforts were rebuffed according to church members. Citing humiliation, neglect, and the unfavorable economic assessments from the A.M.E. church, the members voted unanimously to leave the church in 2011.The process was not entered into lightly. It began in February 2011 and led to a pivotal legal battle.
On July 19 Sixth Circuit Judge Brooks. P. Goldsmith ruled in favor of the church in the property ownership case. James Glover, Presiding Elder of the Lancaster District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, asserted that since the church structure is hierarchical in nature that trustees and members of Shady Grove were required to adhere by tenants and provisions in the Book of Discipline of the African American Episcopal Church we dictate that all property of member churches belongs to the national church. When contacted, Glover declined to comment for this article.
The Shady Grove members argued that their case could be settled under civil law rather than religious law.
Neutral Law approach…
Upon examining the deeds for the property on which Shady Grove Church now sits, the judge determined, “the first deed in 1919 described 1 1/4 acres and was conveyed to named individuals, successors and assigns as trustees of Shady Grove Church. The second, containing 1.00 acres was likewise conveyed to named individuals as trustees of Shady Grove A.M.E. Church in 1950. These deeds clearly indicate the real property was conveyed to the trustees for the ‘local’ church.”
Finding no deed or writing by the church trustees to transfer ownership to the national church, the judge ruled in favor of Shady Grove in a summary judgement. The judge determined that the neutral principles of law approach applied in this case rather than the deference approach, thereby limiting the reach of the national church’s religious hierarchy over the property dispute.
Shady Grove church members feel vindicated and liberated by the ruling.
“This is a milestone for AME churches, because before if a congregation pulled out they lost their church,” McCrory said.
According to its current laypersons and leaders, Shady Grove has always been a traditional Methodist church. Its ministries include youth ministry, missionary support, and outreach such as helping the First Church of the Nazarene with its monthly food bank outreach efforts.
“There was a lot of need here in this community that could not be met because of obligations we had to the AME organization,” McCrory said. “If a member needed help with a light bill or heating costs, the church had been in such financial hardship it barely could pay its own heating and electricity costs.”Congregation members stress that they still have limited resources to help those in need but at least by becoming independent they can choose the way the resources are allocated.
The parish has had two ministers, Rev. James Knapper and Rev. Linda Belton, to assist them during this interim period. Their next step, they hope, will be to call a full time pastor.
The lawsuit between Shady Grove and the AME church was settled Friday and now the members are thankful to close this chapter and move forward.
“We believe our case will give other churches in the community hope. We can show them that it is okay to fight for what is yours and that there is a Christian way to do that,” McCrory said. “We had to hold onto our faith in God rather than place our faith in a human organization.”
The church members want to pursue local and community ministry, though they realize that financial limitations will affect how much they are able to reach out to those in need. They are thankful to be able to assert this new course for their ministry.
“It is a wonderful thing for this church as a whole now that it has been settled. We think we can grow and become a light to this community,” said Deacon James Stevenson. “We want to be known as a caring church with compassion for everyone’s needs.”
The members say now that the legal wranglings are resolved they can get back to the primary focus of being the church.
“We are really blessed that we are out of the conference now. Worship will be less stressful because we can serve and praise the Lord without worrying about how we are going to pay our bills,” said deaconess Rosa Chappell.