Last week, County Executive John G. Gary stood beneath a century-old red church steeple in Severna Park and told the church's congregation he was sorry.
Afterward, he walked in the church's cemetery, surrounded by tall oaks and a small stream, where 100 graves mark a congregation always devout in faith and once small in numbers.
The graves Gary visited are the final resting places of working people -- blacks who for decades labored in a largely white county, then walked every Sunday with their families down a dusty road to Asbury Town Neck United Methodist Church.
Thirty years ago, county officials turned down the same dirt road, entered the church's wooden doors and notified parishioners that the county needed to run a water line along the edge of their property. The line "would extend along the proposed roadway," the church log notes.
But the county took a shorter, straighter, cheaper route, digging through the church's cemetery instead of around it, eating up an acre for pipes. It was space that could have provided 75 gravesites.
After county workers shoveled the dirt back into the ditch and placed permanent orange markers across the cemetery lawn, the county paid the church $2.
Some church board members suspect that their predecessors didn't realize the county had violated the oral agreement.
Maybe they found out too late, or maybe they found out about the pipes through the graveyard but didn't know how to fight the county.
They suspect that the county knew all along that it was cheaper to lay the pipes in a straight line than in rooked one and took advantage. The 1966 land records are vague and confusing to today's board members.
30 years of frustration
For three decades, the congregation expressed frustration, knowing the day would come when the cemetery would be full and 75 people could not be buried with their families. They argued in church meetings about who would be buried where, changing burial guidelines every several years, hoping to alleviate tension. But it got worse.
Ten years ago, the congregation voided 50-year-old contracts with dozens of founding families that had bought plots near the little church. Five years ago, the church voided all contracts, saying members would be buried first-come, first-served, regardless of plots bought in the past or the location of relatives' graves.
The board voted to stop discussing the graveyard at meetings. Too many people would cry.
Many of the older members of the congregation say now that they had felt nothing could be done about it. The land belonged to the county, they said, and it didn't matter how the county got it. They figured maybe they were lucky just to have their church.
Younger members were not as content. A new church board, raised on the story of the county's actions, has came into office over the past five years.
Last year, Dr. Joyce Jennings, the church's first female board president, declared the time of acquiescence over. She wanted the church's land back.
"If they took it, they can give it back," Jennings said recently as she stood in the cold, her arms outstretched, between the graves of her parents and grandparents.
She called Del. John R. Leopold, an Anne Arundel Republican, and wrote to the county executive. She asked them to come to services, to walk in the cemetery.
"I want you to give my people their gravesites back so I can stop seeing the elderly members of my congregation crying," she said, "That's what I told them."
With those words, a quiet end to the 30-year struggle drew near. Leopold and Gary said they could not comment on the actions of their predecessors, but could only speculate about why the county took the church's land. Maybe it was needed to build an extension of Route 10. Maybe the earlier officials didn't realize the impact of their actions.
Gary speaks to congregation
Last week, standing before the 400-member congregation, Gary said that regardless of why it happened, it clearly should not have.
In the spring, he said, the county will find the $25,000 needed to dig up the water pipes and put them on the edge of the property, where they should have gone in the first place.
"It was just wrong to run a water line through anybody's cemetery," county spokeswoman Lisa Ritter said. "It was just wrong."
Pub Date: 12/31/97