Montgomery County officials were overjoyed when the 40-member Grace Chapel Church asked to lease one of the county's five abandoned schools last month, but when the neighbors around the school found out, they were nervous.
"It's all this cult business in the news that bothers me," said Betty Yoklavich, a Cabin John resident. "If the church is a good thing, so be it. But you never know."
Mindful of the deaths of more than 900 members of a cult in Jonestown, Guyana, the neighbors around the Clara Barton Elementary School in Cabin John are taking no chances with an unfamiliar religion in their midst.
They expressed their fears to the county and expect to attend a public hearing Jan. 17 to hear pastor Daniel Statton describe the church's history and beliefs.
Grace Chapel plans to lease the school for $21,500 a year for 10 years. They told the county they plan to use it to house a private school for children of the congregation and for chapel services.
"We don't drink Kool-Aid and we aren't Communists" said church member Robert Viscount, a county real estate agent. The church, he said, is made up of people from many denominations who "want to walk more closely with Christ." He said the church differs from other denominations in that "we deal a lot closer with the Bible.
"I can understand thae apprehension some people might feel," he said."But we're just a little church that reads the Bible, feels the Bible and tries to live accordingly. We sing a great deal in service and tend to get a bit more emotional than other churches."
Walter Snowdon, head of the Cabin John Citizens Association, said, "We're not prejudiced. Our intent is to have some kind of history on this thing, sorta like a track record. You've just got to be a little careful these days, especially after Guyana."
James Boston, of the county's Office of Economic and Community Development, said the church's proposal to lease Clara Barton, located at 7425 MacArthur Blvd. was "entirely above board and proper" and came as a "refreshing surprise."
"People aren't exactly knocking our doors down to grab the school," he said. "We'd like to lease to private businesses but most schools are located in residential areas and are zoned for residential uses only."
Clara Barton is one of 21 county schools that, due to declining enrollments, have been closed during the last four years. According to Boston, 16 of those schools are being used for other county business, or have been leased to private and parochial schools. Montgomery Hills Junior High School is being used by the Herew Academy, for instance, while Dennis Avenue Elementary is being occupied by the County Health Department.
"We were afraid we'd have to destroy the school," said Boston. "Other religious groups have approached us in the past, but they don't have the money usually to lease. This group did, and my job is to (defend the group's proposal to lease the school) because everyone sees Guyana."
According to Mason, the church elder, the church's lease would be underwritten by the Living Word Inc., a California-based religious publishing company.
Charles Beech, a spokesman for the Living Word, said the publishing company's ties to Grace Chapel are "in belief only."
"We help out other churches from time to time," he said.
Clara Barton currently is being used by the U.S. Postal Service, which operates a post office in the north wing of the building. A private nonprofit day care center also uses the building. Since December, the chapel's school has being using the south wing on a trial basis.
"We teach the three R's and use pretty much the same textbooks as the public schools," said Lee Duncan, a Grace Chapel teacher, as she watched the school's 13 pupils during a reading period yesterday. The students range in age from 4 to 12 years. "We also sing spirituals and read from the Bible about four times a day."
Church member Viscount said he sympathized with residents who are concerned about the church. "But we get upset whenever someone tacks names like cult and sect onto us," he said. "We're Christians, that's all. We aren't publicity seekers and we don't proselytize. I just hope people don't confuse our need for privacy with secrecy. We have nothing to be secretive about."