103-year-old great-great-grandmother regains church membership

This Sunday, hopefully, will be different for Genora Hamm Biggs.

Her beloved Union Grove Baptist Church won’t likely look like much — a good many of its members and the Rev. Timothy Mattox will worship in another place – it’ll feel like it once did.

No one will be laying hands on members and people won’t be flailing on the church floor.

Baptist, Biggs contends, don't do that.

Therein lies the great divide that has dogged the small Elberton congregation and disturbed Mother Biggs for months, drawing media attention from across the country.

The disagreement became public in August when Mattox and nine other members of the church voted to revoke the 103-year-old great-great-grandmother’s membership.

Then about a week ago members voted to remove Mattox, a former student of Biggs. Instead of leaving, the pastor upped the ante and got restraining orders against Biggs; one of her grandsons, Elliot Dye; and a former church secretary.

In a surprise move Wednesday, Adrian Patrick, an attorney representing Mattox and many of the remaining “active members” of Union Grove, announced their plans to leave and withdraw both the letter revoking Biggs’ membership and the restraining orders against Biggs’ grandson and three others.

“I advised them that there was no way to win,” Patrick said early Thursday. “You never win in the court of public opinion.”

The Atlanta attorney said he also told his clients that the church has suffered “enough bad press” and instead of feeding the divisiveness, it would be better for them to just leave.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about a building with a name on it,” he said.

That may be the only truth uttered since this ugliness began. Afterall, it’s people who make a church not the building. A congregation that nurtures personal relationships, a sense of mission and a desire to sing, pray and learn, can meet anywhere.

Sometimes, unfortunately, we build our faith on a church. Sometimes we build our faith foundation on a pastor we really like.

When I met Mother Biggs a few weeks ago, I was convinced she loved Union Grove and Mattox. When he was named pastor six years ago, she said welcomed Mattox with open arms and invited him and his wife to her home to dinner on several occasion.

I wasn’t convinced, however, she understood the difference between Baptists and the Church of Christ.

Robert Franklin, an ordained minister and professor of moral leadership at Emory University, said then that the dispute between Union Grove and Mother Biggs was pretty unusual but scripture is pretty clear that reconciliation should be used to resolve such issues.

“Unless someone was being disruptive or is perceived as a threat, this is really an over reach of power,” he said.

Although there are churches that have rules about expressing dissent and voting people out, Franklin said he finds those kinds of churches troubling because it’s a departure from what Jesus intended the church to be – a home for all people.

Perhaps that’s why the Rev. Mattox finally surrendered, why they turned over the keys to Union Grove to Mother Biggs, the church’s oldest and longest member.

And so come Sunday, Mattox and his followers will be at Bethel Baptist. Patrick said they haven’t found a place to worship yet.

But Mother Biggs will be back at Union Grove in the same pew she has sat for the last 92 years. It will be bittersweet, she said.

“I’m happy it’s over,” she said. “But I’m sorry to see our old members leave the Baptist church and go holy.”