For two years they have knocked on doors and solicited prospective churchgoers, promised footballs to Sunday school students and provided buses to get to services. And as the "soul-winning" Chestertown Baptist Church and its disciples won more converts, the ill feeling began to spread.
One Baptist minister resigned his pastorate rather than emulate the methods his new competitor across the street uses to win converts. Another watched helplessly as half his congregation left his ministry for Chestertown Baptist. And when the new church sought permission to expand its school, Chestertown officials blocked it -- a move a judge later overruled.
The uproar caused by the church and its young pastor, the Rev. David Nelms, has sharply divided Chestertown, a quiet college community on the Eastern Shore. Church leaders see themselves as victims of a liberal conspiracy, while their critics talk darkly of the beginnings of a right-wing religious network.
Prominent among the church's critics have been members of the county's Ministerial Association, which Nelms has refused to join.
"He [Nelms] presents himself as one man doing it better than the rest of us are," said the Rev. Charles Fraser of the Chestertown Church of the Nazarene. "It makes the rest of us preachers in town look like a bunch of dodos."
"Kids we used to have were promised footballs, baskeballs to come," said Johnson. "You can't keep up with the competition."
On Sundays, the independent congregation, which is unaffiliated with any Baptist conference, draws an average of 500 people from at least three Maryland counties and nearby Delaware. So crowded is its present building that some Bible classes are held outside in buses.
Nelms, 26, a member of the board of the Maryland Moral Majority, also has thumbed his nose at the preachments of civil authority, and invoked the spirit of the civil rights movement in asserting the church's sacred duty to place a new "gymnatorium" wherever and however it saw fit on its eight-acre plot of ground at the outskirts of town.
"I'd rather obey God than obey man," he said during one sermon broadcast over the local radio station. "So when God's law crosses civil law, I'm gonna chuck the civil law . . . because Jesus is my Lord . . . I got news for this town . . . I'll rot in jail before I quit soul-winning, amen, because we have a higher command than the town of Chicago."
The church began holding services in the public school board building in November 1978 and moved into its own building a year ago last September. Six months later, it asked the town's okay to build a 12,000 square-foot addition for 250 weekday students. The school now has 75, crowded into three rooms in the church basement where they study sentence structure from scripture and raise a small American flag if they need help. Instead of paying tuition, parents make tax-deductible contributions to the church of $85 a month.
Nelms' dispute with the town began with the enforcement of an ordinance -- later relaxed -- that would have prohibited the sign announcing the church's services outside its temporary quarters. It escalated with a disagreement over a parking lot the church started building without permits and rose to litiginous heights over official disapproval of church expansion plans. r
Town officials contended the site plan for the new building posed traffic, pederstrian and aesthetic problems. To accept the town's position, the church said, would contradict divine guidance.
"Some people are not interested in the church growing," said Shirley Beilor, whose husband is a deacon.
"I don't think we have two sets of laws in our community for two separate groups of people," said Mayor Elmer Horsey, "whether it's a church, me or anybody else. This is strictly a zoning matter."
The antagonism toward the church around town is apparent. "It reminded me of the Jones cult, the way this thing has taken hold," said George McClary, who said he objects to proselytizing tactics he regards as harassment.
Some of the church's practices have reinforced that talk. To illustrate the church's belief in a literal hell, for example, one member dressed up in a Satan suit, for what was billed as "Beat the Devil Sunday." On another occasion, a Sunday school teacher burned a doll, "to illustrate the biblical teaching of hell," Nelms said. Such incidents have been recited with horror, and embellishment, by townspeople.
Nelms boasts that his church has "more people on food stamps and welfare than any other church in the county." And to this flock, he preaches not only the biblical word but also the political gospel of the fundamentalist right. Everyone attending church, for example, received a report card issued by the National Christian Action Coalition on politicians running for state and national office last November.
"What happended this past election was not an accident," Nelms said. "A lot of churches like ours, by the tens of thousands, were doing what we did, and we're gonna continue to do it. The civil rights people did it in the '60s. Why can't we do it? Nobody shouted separation of church and state when Martin Luther King spoke out. He had a right to do what he did and so do we."
For now, government and church officials agree on at least one thing.
"It's a big waste of a lot of people's time and money," said town attorney C. Daniel Saunders of the building dispute, which may end up in a higher court.
"The costs of building go up every week," Nelms said. "They've delayed us 11 months. This is God's money. It's gonna be returned. It's gonna cost a lot of people a lot more money before it's over."