Nothing like religion and money to make for a controversy. Add in a sizable slice of history and racial pride, and you've got a real potboiler.
Yet outside the tiny community of Asbury, off Route 22 near Harford Community College, few people took notice of the tussle over the fate of Asbury Methodist Church, the oldest black church in Harford County, founded by free blacks in 1838.
The United Methodists discontinued services and closed the small church 150 years later, citing declining membership and dwindling attendance. The Churchville Charge, or sub-district, of the United Methodists put a padlock on the door, and listed the two-acre site for sale at $95,000, including two buildings and two cemeteries.
That aroused the community, whose ancestors had provided the land and built the church and maintained it as both house of worship and community center, long before affiliation with the United Methodists in the 1970s.
The newly formed Asbury Community Association filed suit to block the sale, claiming that hallowed ground as its cultural patrimony.
Last year, the dispute was settled out of court, with community members paying $40,000 to the Methodists to reclaim the property. Now the white-painted wooden frame church is leased to a Pentecostal group, which helps to pay off the debt, while Asbury regroups to organize non-denominational worship and to refurbish the long-abandoned fellowship hall.
"I wouldn't call it Christian for the community to have to buy back its own church -- a church we supported with our blood, sweat and tears," says Walter G. Banks, 71, who led the effort to recover the historic property. "People built that church with their nickels and dimes. . . . I still have a pain in my heart about it."
Mr. Banks, whose ancestors founded the church and owned much of the land around it, believes the Methodist takeover had much to do with money and rivalry with the two other churches in the Churchville Charge. "We were outvoted for our own church," he said, as the two survivors split the $40,000 proceeds of the sale.
His ancestor, Edward Cooper, provided the ground for the church back in 1850, reserving the right to reclaim it for his heirs if the property was no longer used for worship services. That proviso of the Cooper deed was a keystone of the Asbury community's claim to the property.
The United Methodists were equally insistent that the property was deeded to them when Asbury affiliated with that denomination. The affiliation was again a joint decision of the Churchville Charge, a division of black churches that sprang out of "Big Asbury" and were formerly in the Methodist Episcopal fold.
The episode raised the recurring questions of who owns a church and who is the church. Is it the current congregation or the denomination headquarters or the people who originally established the physical church property?
Does a church exist only as a place of denominational worship, or is it a cultural/community center that endures beyond the schisms and mergers of various ecclesiastical organizations?
The United Methodists have been struggling for years to keep open their plethora of tiny local churches, meeting places for itinerant or shared preachers in the spirit of John Wesley, Methodism's founder. Graying members and filled churchyards illustrate the challenge. What the denomination mostly has is real estate donated over the years by parishioners for their local churches. It's an asset that can be sold to keep the greater operation solvent.
But Asbury's significance is historical, rooted in its ties to the black community in Harford and its role in the civil rights movement. It was the first black church in the county; the first black pastor was installed there before the end of the Civil War. Asbury remained the social and worship center of the community even as other black churches sprang up.
The county's NAACP chapter was formed here (Mr. Banks was the first president) and the strategy for integration of Harford's public schools was hatched in the church. But when it closed in 1988, Asbury had only 60 members and revenue that didn't meet expenses.
An effort was made to place the church on the registries of historic buildings, but that protective act was not sanctioned by the United Methodists. That's another goal of the community association.
While Asbury has been preoccupied with the financial aspects of renewed ownership, members have not been idle. The fellowship hall has been freshly painted to match the church, and a new roof put on. The clutter stored in the hall, which was the former church building, was recently removed in preparation for remodeling. But the 19th century pump organ and pot-belly stove serve as reminders of the past.
"Now we have to start all over again," said Lewis H. Smith Sr., a lifetime member of Asbury. Members have died, others have scattered to a variety of churches. But the community is %J committed to Asbury Church, he said. "It's important for this community to have its own church."
He's organized a Christian youth club as the church prepares to move back. Several pastors are inquiring about heading up the church, and a major fund-raiser is being discussed.
"I'm feeling such a drive to get this done," Mr. Banks said. "I know I'll have a rendezvous with my family soon. I just hope I have time to finish this work."
Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.