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Staff photo by Waytt Massey / The sign for Friendship Baptist Church on Moses Road is pictured on Oct. 29, 2021. The church now meets at a location on Gadd Road.

Claude Dennis Harvey is the namesake of his grandfather, a man who more than a half-century ago donated land near Hixson to create a community cemetery for a church. Many of Harvey's kin, including his mother, are buried in the cemetery that sits on the hill behind the sanctuary.

That is why Harvey is so torn up about what is happening with Friendship Baptist Church.

"It's an old-time community graveyard and church, and he doesn't care one thing about it at all. It doesn't matter to him," Harvey said. "I told him, I said, 'Mike, you don't even think about it. You just take the money and go.'"

"Mike" is Michael Combs Jr., pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Hixson. Combs has led the church for more than a decade, including moving the congregation from its original site beside the graveyard on Moses Road to a $1.35 million, 24,000-square-foot worship space on Gadd Road.

Combs contends he is selling the land, including the cemetery on Moses Road, with the support of his church.

But the pending sale is reopening old wounds for some people with long-standing connections to the community and the graveyard, including Harvey and others, who argue the cemetery should be returned to the community. They accuse Combs of turning his back on a previous agreement to transfer ownership, as well as pushing out people who disagree with him and using the land to financially support the massive new church 3 miles south.

They worry about what the new owners will do to the cemetery and whether family plots will be kept in family names. Open plots could now be sold for thousands of dollars, something the cemetery previously shunned. Community members were buried there for free. This could start a cycle of the property changing hands, Harvey said.

Combs did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the Times Free Press by phone and email, starting Wednesday.

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On Wednesday, Combs wrote on Friendship Baptist's Facebook page that people were making "ill-informed statements" about the church and the sale.

"All decisions about buying, selling or giving property that belongs to the church must be voted on by the active church membership," Combs wrote. "In the past few years, the church membership has discussed what to do with the cemetery and has considered all options. This last Sunday evening, in a business meeting, the church membership voted unanimously to sell the building on Moses Road and the cemetery to the prospective buyers as long as people who have immediate family members already buried in the cemetery would be allowed by the new owners to be buried there with their loved ones in the future."

He also read the statement from the pulpit, in a video posted on the church's Facebook page.

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Hixson church cemetery

The James Co. — local real estate firm that advertises "individualism, authenticity, consistency, supremacy, results" as its guiding values — lists the old church and graveyard for $395,000 and reports the sale as pending. The buyer is unknown. The James Co. did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.

Mike Weathers, who dug graves free of charge at the cemetery for decades, said around 2016 when Friendship Baptist moved from Moses Road to Gadd Road, a small committee was formed to manage the cemetery, work that members of the committee were already doing in an unofficial capacity.

(READ MORE: Burned down, half-rebuilt Meigs County church tries to recover from alleged theft)

People in the church voted to give control of the cemetery to this committee, but a formal written agreement to transfer the land could never be reached with Combs, Weathers said.

Disgruntled by the inaction, Weathers left Friendship Baptist around this time. He does not trust Combs, he said. Former members said the pastor removed deacons from the church and created a self-appointed counsel.

Weathers used the term "dictatorship" several times to describe the situation.

"There's nothing done unless it's under his authority," he said. "No decision. Nothing."

On Facebook this week, Combs wrote that such an agreement to give the cemetery to the community never happened.

"It has also been alleged that I myself have promised to give the cemetery property to the community there," he wrote. "The truth is, I do not own this property and therefore it is not mine to give or sell. I don't have the legal authority to do so. I have stated this many times on the record as well as off the record. It is owned by Friendship Baptist Church of Hixson and I am just the pastor."

Combs led a Wednesday evening church service at Friendship Baptist, preaching from the Book of Acts. He said when Christians are living righteously they will be attacked.

"The devil will stir up somebody, somewhere, somehow to attack us. He'll attack our family. He'll attack our finances. He'll attack our faith," Combs told the congregation.

Kevin Walters, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, said in an email that generally during cemetery sales those who purchased lots can use their receipt to retain the right to bury there. However, church cemeteries are exempt from state regulation, he said.

The cemetery sale may be legal, but Harvey draws upon his evangelical roots in comparing the situation with Combs and the cemetery to abortion. Just because something is legal does not make it moral, he said.

"In my eyes, he put such a black eye on religion," Harvey said. "People, young kids nowadays, have trouble going to church anyway. I hope they don't think this is the way it is, no matter where you go. It's kind of like it's all about money. You see, what my grandmother and grandfather donated, it's gonna be gone. It's gone."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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