Church's Latest Struggle Is For Its Own Survival

April 26, 1992|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

Walter G. Banks sees the "for sale" sign on the small, old church onAsbury Road in Churchville as a symbol of the long line of strugglesfor its black congregation.

The congregation has fought battles big and small -- from pinching pennies to pay for the church's maintenance to working for civil rights in the county.

Now, the congregation is fighting for the very survival of the parish.

The church, known as the Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church, was closed nearly three years ago by the Churchville Charge of the United Methodist Church because of dwindling parish membership.

Its congregation, including Banks, filed suit in county Circuit Court in November 1989 to keep the church. The group now has a tentative agreement with church leaders that will allow them to buy the church.

"I have such a feeling for that church," said the 70-year-old Banks, alifelong member of the Asbury congregation.

"Those people built that church with nickels and dimes and blood, sweat and tears. There were no big contributors," he said. "Now we got to do it all over again."

The parish was established in the 200 block of Asbury Road by former slaves in 1838, making it the oldest black congregation in Harford County.

"The church known as Big Asbury, being the only church for colored people in Harford County, was largely attended," the congregation's centennial program notes.

The congregation, however, did not have its first black pastor until 1864, near the end of the Civil War.

In later years, as new churches were built in the area, the Asbury church continued to serve the small enclave of black residents who lived along Asbury Road and Corns Drive in Churchville.

Many of the residents who live along those streets today, including Banks, are descendants of church founders.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Asbury church was at the center of the area's civil rights movement. Many of its members fought for school desegregation in the county,often using the church as a meeting place for their efforts.

The congregation also established the first chapter of the NAACP -- the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- in the county. Banks was the first president, serving in 1954.

The church's membership declined in the following years, dropping from about 125to 60 members when the facility was closed in 1989.

The Churchville Charge of the United Methodist Church decided to sell the propertyfor $95,000 and merge the congregation with two other churches, Clark's Chapel in Kalmia and John Wesley Church in Abingdon.

The 2-acre property includes two churches, one of which was built in 1883, andtwo cemeteries.

The Asbury Community Association, headed by Banks, and several church members filed suit to block the sale of the church.

In the tentative out-of-court settlement, expected to be finalin two to three months, the association will buy the property for $40,000. The money will be distributed to the other churches in the charge, Banks said.

The association, meanwhile, is hoping to get the church and its cemeteries listed on the National Register of HistoricPlaces.

The settlement will mark an end to a difficult time -- and the beginning of a challenging time -- for the congregation, said Lewis H. Smith Sr., another lifelong member of the church.

"The majority of the community is waiting for the association to purchase thechurch," said Smith, 58, who has a master's degree in theology. "Then we will start all over again."

Church leaders are already planning events to raise money and membership for the new parish, to be called the Asbury Community Church, Smith said.

Once the church is ready for services, the group hopes to provide religious, educational and social programs, something that has been missing since the church was closed, Smith said.

"It's important for every community to have its own church," Smith said. "The church has always been the focal point of the community.

"I've been praying about it," he said. "I knew all the time we would be back. This is our home church."

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