ASHLAND — Ten miles south of Columbia on U.S. 63, the cemetery behind New Salem Baptist Church houses the bodies of slaves, Civil War veterans and a who’s who of Ashland and Columbia’s earliest days. Dr. David Doyle, the church’s first pastor, is buried here. He carried a rifle to and from church from fear of Indian attacks. That was a little more than 175 years ago.
Through the window of the church’s back office, Doyle’s tombstone stands guard. But there is change in sight these days.
The change is not only in the aging faces of those in the pews, but also in the eyes of the youth who sit across the aisle from them.
There is subtle evidence of a church getting younger — a swing set and monkey bars to the right of the chapel, a volleyball court to the left.
On Wednesday evenings the voices of about 20 young people fill the air. The tombstones behind the chapel turn into upturned bases on a Wiffle ball field. The basement of the church becomes a banquet of cookies and Kool-Aid. On the floor above, the leaders of the church are searching for a new pastor.
New Salem has a tough time keeping a pastor.
In recent years, the position has been filled by interim pastors, in lieu of a full-time pastor. From 1980 to 2002, two men held New Salem’s head position. Three men have held the spot since then — a one-year and two interim pastors.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the selection process has been the subtle division in the church it has revealed. The division is not in theology or beliefs. Rather, it’s in the direction the church should go.
Like the trees shading the front door, New Salem has deep roots and a strong foundation, but the branches split.
There are the stalwarts, the lovers of tradition. They are opting for a pastor with a familiar style and focus.
Then there are the new arrivals — more apt to make changes and increasingly concerned with looking outward. They desire a new and innovative personality with a focus on outreach.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for a church to grow here,” Ron Willis said. “But this congregation is in a groove, and I don’t know if they’re willing to get out of it.”
Willis is on New Salem’s Pulpit Search Committee, the group charged with finding a new pastor.
He worries many at New Salem are content with the church staying too small to make a difference in growing Ashland. “You can’t go with God and stay where you’re at,” Willis said.
For many in the church, growth is a scary thing.
For those such as Bud Harmon, New Salem is as much a part of their lives as Sunday dinner. “The old people don’t want to go the way the kids want to go,” he said.
Harmon is 78-years-old. His face is weathered. There is a gentleness about him, a peace that comes with getting closer to meeting God.
“If I’m not ready to meet him by now, I’ll never be,” he says.
He started coming to New Salem in the mid-1940s, shortly after having an experience with God. It changed his life. He describes the experience simply. He’d taken his kids to slop some hogs. As he began to let down a bucket into a well to water the pigs, he began to sob. He’d been struggling through depression. In the midst of his sobs, he heard a voice from behind him say, “I will never leave you, nor will I forsake you.” When he turned there was no one there, but those words continued to ring in his hear. They haven’t stopped.
“God has been true to what he told me that day all my life,” he says.
Shortly after that day, the pastor from New Salem paid a visit to Harmon’s house. He told the pastor his story. The pastor asked him to make a profession of faith at New Salem and he did.
In his 60 years at the church, Harmon has been janitor, a deacon and the groundskeeper.
Harmon has seen more than 16 pastors come through New Salem, all more or less the same.
He is skeptical of changing. To Harmon, the church’s tradition, feel and music are all connected to the way that God moves. To tamper with those factors is to tamper with the way God moves in people’s hearts at New Salem.
With the growth of the church’s youth program, that same tradition, feel and music that Bud Harmon and others treasure is being tested.
Last summer, New Salem brought in a youth evangelist.
Many of the youth had their own experiences with God.
“The speaker talked about things that really pertained to us and it really touched me, and I decided I wanted to change my life,” Sean Sapp said.
Sapp and his friend were at one time the only two people involved in the youth group at New Salem.
“I was already a Christian, but I just thought that if I was a better Christian I could go out and get other people and bring them here so that they can get to know the Lord,” he said.
Soon after he rededicated his life to God, Sean got to give his testimony in front of his friends and even his dad. “I’ve seen him break his arm so bad that the bone was sticking out and he didn’t cry, but that night he cried,” Sapp said.
Sapp and his sister rarely show up at New Salem without a few friends. Many of their friends are unchurched.
It seems as if the youth are influencing New Salem more than any other group.
“We’re kind of new to the youth being here and being such a big part of the church, but we’re glad they’re here,” said Beverly Crow, who has witnessed one of the largest boosts in the church’s youth program since its inception..
The question is whether or not they will still be at New Salem down the road. Already, the kids sometimes go to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church to play basketball and meet other kids.
But on Wednesday nights it’s hard to tell that the youth would rather be anywhere else. The Sapp kids run the bases just yards from tombstones bearing their last name.
Past Dr. Doyle’s tombstone and through the window, the search for a pastor pauses for a moment as the group of men laboring over recommendations pause to listen.