Members of the congregation, many of whom who have been with the church for decades, met in front of the church Tuesday to make clear that all they want is their church back.
Attorney Channing Ruskell, who is representing plaintiffs Eva Henderson and Marshell Staton in a case filed in Cherokee County Superior Court against Pastor Willard Hamrick, said the situation is “terrible” for his clients.
From outside the church off Stell Road south of Highway 92 passersby can see the “No Trespassing” signs placed in windows and on doors. No information about church services is displayed in the entrance sign, broken fence pieces lay in the yard and a pile of trash is gathered near the front.
“It’s (supposed to be) Welcome All and then it’s got the ‘No Trespassing’ sign,” Ruskell said outside the two-story white church. “(It’s) ‘Welcome None.’”
But the Welcome All congregation recently decided to take a stand against Hamrick.
“We’ve got as much right to this church as he has, or more, really,” Henderson said.
Churchmembers got the attention of a local television station when they held Easter Sunday services in the road out front of the church, as a padlocked gate blocked their entrance. The television crews drew out Hamrick, the man the churchmembers blame for kicking them out of Welcome All, who said the members were kicked out for being “unbecoming Christians.” Hamrick’s attorney Steve Abernathy did not return calls for comment.
Hamrick could not be reached by press time.
“What he should have been doing is falling on his knees and praying,” Henderson said. “That’s what he ought to have been doing.”
Ruskell, on behalf of his clients, is petitioning Hamrick to turn the church keys and records back to Staton, the sole deacon of the church, and Henderson, the church treasurer, and provide an accounting and expenditure of the funds from an insurance claim Oct. 2, 2009.
The suit also calls for banning Hamrick from church property.
The petition says Hamrick’s actions have caused church membership “mental anguish.”
According to the petition, the church’s insurance company paid $16,137.21 for repairs to the church after it sustained a significant amount of flood damage during a massive flood that year. On Oct. 16, 2009, the insurance company paid an additional $29,800 to the church for the damage claim, but neither of the checks were revealed to the church members, the suit claims.
It wasn’t until last year they became aware of the payments, they say.
Henderson said her late husband Joe Henderson, the former treasurer, called the insurance company, who notified him of the check payment.
Shortly after, he was told by doctors he had about three months to live and passed away in October from cancer.
“After I kind of got over things, God just put it in my mind Joe wanted to see where that check went to,” Henderson said.
Henderson said Hamrick soon caught wind of an investigation and decided to resign June 3, when at a service with only about four members he told Henderson he was considering selling the church and he would split the profits.
“I didn’t go for that,” Henderson said. “Joe loved this little church and I do, too.”
The petition said the plaintiffs and other church members confronted Hamrick, but he refused to provide an explanation of where the funds went. Instead of accounting for the money, Hamrick resigned as pastor.
After the new preacher, Pastor Roy Smith of Rydell, was voted by membership to be hired, Hamrick came to the Sunday morning service on Dec. 9.
“Just as we were getting started, he comes in and throws his Bible up on the pulpit and said ‘I’ve been reinstated,’” said Laura Smith, Roy’s wife.
After the incident, they say Hamrick decided to lock out the congregation, telling them they we no longer members of the church and he would arrest them if they came on the property again.
“We just want our church back,” Laura Smith said. “We’re ready to take this to court now and get it out of the way. We’re tired of having services in the yard, in the street, in our homes and everywhere else.”
Ruskell said the judge hearing the case ordered the two parties to go to a judicially hosted settlement conference, and he feels “very confident” his clients will succeed. The date for the hearing has not yet been determined, Ruskell said.
Laura Smith said just over 30 members still want to come back and worship.
“And there’s a lot more wanting to come just to help the church,” Laura said.
Dorothy Clayton, a founding member of the church with late husband Charles, said the church started in her basement and was then housed Mill Street until the Stell family in 1974 donated the land where it now sits.
She said her husband would be heartbroken to know churchmembers have been locked out of their place of worship.
“I’ve been crying a lot,” she said. “He would really be upset.”