Members of one of the smallest and oldest African-American churches in Carroll County are leaving the United Methodist Conference and are gearing up to try to retain the church and its property, largely a cemetery where many have ancestors buried.
Congregants of White Rock Church in Sykesville, founded by freed slaves in the 1860s, said Sunday that they felt neglected by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church and feared their church would be ordered to close or merge with another because of its demographic: a tiny congregation with a largely graying membership. Some said that being a predominantly black congregation adds to a feeling that they will be targeted.
"We know that they are closing churches," said Clayonia Colbert-Dorsey, whose great-great-grandmother is among congregants in a faded black-and-white photo opposite the doors to the 70-seat chapel.
Congregants — there are about 35 in the new nondenominational church — have a sense of "being pushed aside, being neglected," said the Rev. Douglas B. Sands Sr., who on Sunday presided over one of the final tasks in leaving the conference: establishing bylaws for the new church.
Shaun Lane, spokesman for the conference and Bishop John R. Schol, said officials had no plan to close White Rock or merge it with other United Methodist churches. He said that, though a few churches may have closed or merged in recent years, closing White Rock was not under consideration, nor were decisions made based on worshipers' age or race, he said. Figures on closings were not immediately available.
"We want to continue to have dialogue with them to address any concerns they have. We're not done. Our goal is and will be to keep that church, and every church, open," he said.
Other churches, Lane said, have demographics similar if not identical to White Rock's, and they too remain open.
He declined to speculate on how soon the conference might move to assert its ownership of the White Rock property if efforts to have the congregation return to the fold don't work out. By denominational rules, the property of a church that is no longer United Methodist reverts to the conference.
In recent years, congregants had become increasingly worried about the church's future in the conference. They've perceived slights: The bishop has yet to attend a service, and a few years ago, the White Rock delegation was left off the schedule of a yearly meeting with conference officials. The meeting, however, did take place that day.
Lane said that Schol would have been unable to get to each of the more than 650 churches in the conference even if he went to a different one every Sunday during his seven years' tenure. He said an internal reorganization at the district level may have led to a mistake in the meeting schedule.
White Rock congregants contend their concerns were ignored until this month, when they told the conference leaders they were quitting the United Methodist Church. Sands, the pastor, pointed to what he called the "violence of insignificance" that leads small churches to feel marginalized.
Lane wrote in a prepared statement that the conference has tried to address the concerns and "efforts to reach out to the pastor and church members have been rebuffed."
Several months ago, all but five White Rock congregants voted to cut United Methodist ties.
They said that after they marked the church's 143rd anniversary last Sunday, conference leaders reminded trustees that leaving the United Methodist family would end White Rock's ownership of the church property. It's about 21/2 acres, church leaders said.
That is unfathomable to congregants who point to weathered gravestones around the church as those of generations of their families.
"Our ancestors, slaves, built this church for the purpose of our people having a place to worship," said congregant Bill Hudson Jr.
They emailed about 100 churches seeking donations toward a legal fund to keep the property.
"We need a lawyer," Sands said.
The email was met with one from the conference, obtained from a White Rock worshipper, saying that the congregation's reasons for leaving are not true, and that if the congregation won't talk with Conference officials this year, they will think in terms of taking over the property. Lane said that "by the end of the year the hope is to have some substantial dialogue."
"I don't see why they don't say 'you can have the property.' There's nothing you can do with it. It's a cemetery," Sands said.