A baseball diamond drives a wedge between a church and its rural neighbors | Orange County | Indy Week
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A baseball diamond drives a wedge between a church and its rural neighbors 

Field of differing dreams

Click for larger image • Sara Shields dreamed of quiet country evenings filled with stargazing from her Hurdle Mills porch. Leaders of the Lattisville Grove Baptist Missionary church envisioned a baseball field that would occupy youth, build community—and light up the night.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Click for larger image • Sara Shields dreamed of quiet country evenings filled with stargazing from her Hurdle Mills porch. Leaders of the Lattisville Grove Baptist Missionary church envisioned a baseball field that would occupy youth, build community—and light up the night.

The baseball diamond was the final straw.

Sara Shields didn't mind when the Lattisville Grove Baptist Missionary megachurch, with its 1,000-strong congregation, moved right across from her.

She did mind when the church asked the county to pave the road. She fought that and she lost; it will be paved later this year.

But when, without so much as a notice, the church erected a ballfield complete with stadium-quality lights that shine in her bedroom window and block out the stars of the night sky, she decided that enough was enough.

The land about 10 miles north of Hillsborough in the bucolic area known as Hurdle Mills would hardly seem like an area for a neighborly feud to erupt. For one thing, not that many people live here, and those who do mostly keep to themselves.

It's a soggy, unforgiving patch. There's a layer of clay beneath the top soil, so when it rains, the water sits atop it and your feet sink into the earth with every footfall. It's zoned for residential use by Orange County, but the drainage problems prevented development for years.

When Shields found it, she thought she'd found heaven on Earth. When Pastor George Crews III found it, he thought it was divine providence.

Shields, 57, had always dreamed of living in a quiet country home, surrounded by nothing but nature's splendor. "I lived in an apartment my whole life," she says. "I grew up on a concrete playground—and I hated every minute of it."

She and her husband, Todd, discovered the land after a five-year search. It was perfect. It was affordable, unspoiled by development and likely to stay that way. "It suited us," she says. "Everything around it was rural."

Their home perches atop a small hill on the north side of Jimmy Ed Road. On a typical day, a few horses casually graze in the fields, not even lifting their heads to see who happens by.

The couple likes to eat their dinner on the front porch after a hard day's work. Sometimes at night, Sara walks outside wrapped in a blanket to look at the stars.

Sara, her husband and her brother-in-law built the house. Todd works as a piano technician. Sara used to own a house-cleaning business in Carrboro and worked at various restaurants struggling to raise children as a single mother after her first marriage dissolved.

Her children are now grown. There's no more cleaning up of other people's messes. She just works on the farm. She brings in rescue horses and takes in strays.

"This was my childhood dream," she says. "It took me 49 years to get here."

Lattisville Grove church moved to Jimmy Ed Road in 2005. It's a huge steel building that seems to leap up out of the ground. Outside, the sign on the street proclaims, "The wages of sin are death. Quit before payday." Architecturally, it's quite a contrast from the historic farmhouses, tobacco barns and occasional country stores that dot the Hurdle Mills landscape.

The African-American church was founded more than 125 years ago. For most of its history, Sunday worshipers gathered at a pretty chapel with a bell tower out front on Walnut Grove Church Road, only a few hundred yards from the new location. "We used to ring that bell every Sunday morning," says Crews.

As a youngster growing up in Durham, Crews, now 35, says he was drawn to the street life.

"There was a time when I kind of got away from Christian principles," he says.

It was Greater St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church and playing church basketball that kept him in the fold.

"That brought me in out of the streets and made me feel like somebody cared," he says.

Pastor W.T. Bigelow led the flock at St. Paul and taught Crews the gospel. When Bigelow died, Crews learned from Pastor William H. Height. Crews can't hide the admiration in his voice when he talks about his two mentors.

He studied at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School. He came to Lattisville Grove in 2002 at the tender age of 28. At the time, the congregation consisted of 250 to 300 people. He declines to take credit for the immense growth of the church since his arrival, saying that it was God's will.

"I was along for the ride," he says.

But with growth came challenges. It wasn't long before the church needed to expand. The county's impervious surface regulations prevented the historic chapel from adding on.

"We were busting at the seams every Sunday morning," he says.

The church leadership wanted to build a fellowship hall. Crews prayed about it and realized they needed to think bigger. They needed to move. One of the trustees found 30 acres for a good price. The fact that it was within shouting distance only helped.

"The issue was about leaving history behind," Crews says. "A lot of our people have loved ones buried at the church. I definitely believe moving here was God's will. We can see our history [from here]. We can see where we came from. We're also looking forward to the future."

At a church league softball game a few years ago, Crews casually threw out the sentence, "Someday we'll have our own field." Clarence Amos McAdams overheard him and decided it sounded like a pretty good idea.

"Cat Hammer" McAdams was a former Negro League baseball player. He and his family helped lead the fund-raising to build the field.

The church didn't have any problem securing approval to build the field. The Orange County Planning Department ruled that a ballfield qualified as an ancillary use for a church.

"That's what was determined," says Michael Harvey, a county zoning enforcement officer. "A church should be able to provide recreational opportunities."

The church didn't even have to notify the neighbors before building the field. When Shields heard that, she couldn't believe it. She asserts that churches have way too much freedom within zoning rules.

"I felt like my due process was overlooked," she says. "Even if you wanted to build a hospital—something that helps people—you'd have to tell the neighbors."

Shields isn't the only unhappy neighbor. Elijah Lawrence owns a house on Walnut Grove Church Road, right across from Lattisville Grove. "The church is basically doing whatever it wants to do," he says. "They're not being very good neighbors."

McAdams didn't live to see the ballfield completed. He died last year. Crews wants the field to be McAdams' legacy.

He's hoping to erect a monument so the young boys and girls playing can learn about the history of the game and the congregation at the same time.

Crews also hopes the field will keep some kids off the street, the way St. Paul Missionary did for him. Crews says, "You can't tell children not to get into trouble if you don't give them something else to do."

But to this day, there's not been a game played on the field. The lights have been on for testing but haven't passed inspection by the county. Crews says fixing them won't be a problem and that games will begin soon. He sees the field as something good for the church and good for the whole neighborhood.

"I'm a firm believer in Christian fellowship," Crews says. "People don't really come together as much as they should."

Shields knows that she and her neighbors are stuck with the field at this point, but she's hoping the county will require the church to take the lights down and keep the games from going too late.

Crews' frustration level is clearly growing. He says he's not going to give another interview on the subject. But he still holds out hope for the conflict to be resolved with fellowship.

"I'm not trying to impede anybody's peace," he says. "I hope at some point they'll come over and enjoy themselves."

More by Matthew Moriarty

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