ABERDEEN, Miss. -- Roosevelt Jones is among those who believe God no longer dwells within the walls of Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church.
He sits with shoulders hunched and eyes downcast as he talks about a long-running dispute that eventually led a judge to order the church closed and sold at auction. Jones, 68, shakes his head and sums up: "It's just a mess."
It began two years ago when the deacon board attempted to fire the Rev. Jesse Sawyer without the support of the full congregation. The deacons cited Sawyer's refusal to cooperate; they also cited a prison record, which Sawyer had disclosed at the time of his hiring.
Since then, the 113-year-old church has been divided.
The allegations range from silly to shocking -- from some church members claiming the deacons glued the locks of the church, to deacon James Hill accusing his mother of trying to have him committed to a mental institution because of his opposition to the pastor.
Church member Lou Stephens says it was almost unbearable to watch Sawyer try to preach a sermon while being called a devil by the deacons.
"They would point at him and say he's a false prophet, and he's going to take us all to hell," said Stephens, a lifelong member of the church tucked away in an isolated area a few miles north of Aberdeen. "We would just start singing and try and drown them out."
Trustee Randy Doss eventually decided to spare his young children the Sunday morning soap opera.
"The kids would ask me, 'What's going on?' It got so bad, we didn't want to come to church," Doss said.
The church sits closed for now. Part of its 200-member body worships across town in an old armory. The other half is waiting for deacon Willie Smith, who paid $46,000 for the church at auction, to reopen the building.
The proceeds from the sale must be split between the two groups. Sawyer is no longer pastor for either group.
A judge intervening in a church dispute is rare, but similar problems have cropped up around the country.
In South Carolina, a judge was asked to evict a pastor, but decided the church must settle the dispute itself. An Alabama judge recently ordered a pastor to vacate his church office after finding the minister used the church's assets to promote a move to get Southern states to secede from the United States.
Unlike other denominations, which generally have a central body that makes pastoral assignments, most Baptist churches consider themselves to be independent bodies that voluntarily cooperate with fellow churches in their association. Each Baptist church chooses its own pastor.
"There should not be in any church a struggle for power or control. It pleases the enemy of Christ when a church is in disarray, but it does not please Christ," said Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. Ebenezer is independent, not part of the convention.
Theories about how Ebenezer's meltdown began vary, but both sides agree a dispute over the church van in August 1998 may have ignited the fuse.
"Our pastor wanted to use the church van to go to a reunion with his family," Stephens said, adding that Sawyer asked church members for permission and they agreed. "When he went to pick up the van it was missing. They (deacons) had hid the van."
Hill, who has been a deacon since 1972, was arrested on theft charges. While he denies moving the van, he admits taunting the pastor in church, calling him a liar.
"The Bible says rebuke before all," Hill said.
When he was hired in 1996, Sawyer was on probation following a federal conviction. He helped inmates cash fraudulent money orders while working at the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
"We didn't know he was on probation. I knew we were supposed to check his background, but we didn't," Smith said. "I regret it now. I feel like I failed the people."
Smith also said Sawyer overreached.
"In a Baptist church, the preacher is supposed to preach and teach, and the board looks out for the supervision of the church," Smith said. "The pastor didn't recognize the deacon board. See, we knew we were in trouble then."
The deacons filed suit to keep Sawyer off church premises and to force him to return all church property and a $1,900 loan the church made to him, said their attorney, Michael Goggans of Tupelo.
Sawyer was undeterred. He continued to show up and preach every Sunday until the judge ordered the church closed in June. Sawyer didn't consider himself fired because most of the congregation had asked him to stay.
"The deacons can recommend things to the church, but the deacons are not the head of the church. Christ is the head of the church," Sawyer said.
Sawyer refuses to go into any detail about his experience at Ebenezer. "I'm trying to let this stuff die. It's still in the court's hands," Sawyer says, referring to an appeal of Monroe County Chancery Judge John Ross' ruling to sell the church property.
The two-year dispute has been trying for Jones, a retired meat plant worker who has attended the church since he was a child.
"We have let man come between us and the word of God," he said.
While he considers himself neutral, he attends the armory services, along with about 70 others, and has no intention of going back to the red-brick church that was Ebenezer.
"I was a member there, until it was closed," Jones said. "It's going to be OK. I'd rather go to another church and be satisfied."
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