WAYNESVILLE, N.C. - A Baptist pastor accused of threatening to banish from his church anyone who didn't vote for President Bush has himself chosen to depart, leaving in his wake a divided community and a cultural chasm.
The Rev. Chan Chandler, 33, walked out of the church he had led for three years Tuesday night after delivering a brief statement of resignation. With him went many of the young congregants he had attracted to the modest brick church on the outskirts of this small mountain town in western North Carolina.
In leaving, Chandler did not apologize for the controversy that made him a national lightning rod - the claims by some church members that they were told to leave if they voted for Democratic nominee John Kerry.
"For me to remain now would only cause more hurt for me and my family," Chandler said. "I am resigning with gratitude in my heart for all of you, particularly those of you who love me and my family."
The dispute that engulfed East Waynesville Baptist Church in recent months would have sounded familiar to many an American congregation: Aging congregation brings in dynamic young preacher to turn things around. New pastor attracts young members who push for change in traditional ways of doing things. Battle ensues.
As Chandler and his wife drove out of the church's parking lot followed by a police escort, about 40 of his supporters walked out as well, with many saying they were resigning their memberships.
"I'm not going to serve with the ungodly," an angry Misty Turner declared.
But Maxine Osborne, 70, and among those who stayed behind, had a different view of what had transpired.
"A lot of these young people had not been in the church more than a year," she said. The Chandlers "brought in a lot of young people, but they also brainwashed them."
Members said the troubles had been simmering since last fall, when Chandler endorsed Bush and denounced Kerry from the pulpit - saying those who planned to vote for the Democrat should "repent or resign."
Tensions escalated last week, when several members said Chandler called a meeting of the church's board of deacons and declared his intention for East Waynesville to become a politically active church.
Anyone who did not like that direction was free to leave, Chandler said - a statement that caused nine members to walk out.
Many of those who opposed Chandler's leadership said they agreed with the pastor's positions on abortion and other hot-button religious topics, but disliked linking those beliefs to specific political positions and candidates.
"If we wanted politics, we would stay home and watch it 24 hours a day on TV," said Charles Gaddy, 70. "I like Chan. He can preach a good sermon. I just wish he would keep some things out of the church."
Frank Lowe, 73, a leader of the members who left the church in opposition to Chandler's leadership, said, "I think his duty was to preach God's word and let the people sort out what they want to do."
Chandler supporter Rhonda Trantham, 27, saw no problem with Chandler's approach. "If it's in the Bible, I believe it should be preached," she said.
Norman Jameson of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina said the convention - which generally allows its congregations free rein to conduct their business - will try to help Chandler find a new church position if he so desires.
"There was evidently a politicization of pulpit in that the pastor is passionate and he interprets that one political party had a stronger stance on abortion than the other," Jameson said. "Passion makes things happen. In a church leadership role, it can also divide people."
Speaking to those who remained after Chandler's departure, Lowe acknowledged the pain on both sides of the schism. "This is a sad hour in this group's life. This is a sad hour in the other group's life," he said.
But he was firm in his opposition to Chandler.
"A person that will take abuse and not stand up for what's right is not worth their salt," he declared.
Out in the parking lot, as she got into her truck, Trantham was equally adamant.
"God will always fix things in the end," she said.
On the Net:
Baptist State Convention of North Carolina: http://www.bscnc.org