Historic Burke Co. church packing up after almost 50 years

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BURKE COUNTY, N.C. - A Burke County pastor is packing up the church he's led for 18 years and moving out.

The Rev. John Whisnant said Grandview Baptist Church cannot afford to stay in its current building and Burke County officials would not let him move forward with a plan that could save it.

Whisnant says it's heartbreaking to pack up and leave.

"It's pretty tough," he said.

He was married in the church by his grandfather. His relatives' names are on the stained-glass windows. He plays bass guitar in the band with his son.

The church building is almost 50 years old and was paid for long ago.

Whisnant says the problem is the family life center, which they build right next to the church. He said they borrowed $575,000 from Bank of Granite in 2003 to build it, dreaming it would serve the community as a recreation center. But as the economy became worse and both attendance and offerings got lower, it became more difficult to make their payments.

But Whisnant had a solution. He would rent space in the center's gym to a business that packed meals for overseas missions.

He said it was simple -- they just needed Burke County to make an exception in the zoning.

But the planning board didn't see it that way.

"We were shocked," Whisnant said. "I absolutely could not believe it."

Earl Grindstaff, who was on the Burke County planning board at the time it considered the application last year, said granting an exception would have set a precedent.

"We thought if we opened that door -- to allow churches to lease or use their facility for profitable purposes -- then it would open a can of worms," he said. "Churches could basically run any kind of business they wanted to out of their structure. That was not in the best interest of the public."

The board wanted to investigate more before deciding, the business went elsewhere, and the bank took over both buildings.

Now the church, filled with members and music since 1963, has to be empty by Wednesday.

Whisnant says what's most important is not the building itself, but the congregation.

"The church is not brick and mortar, it's people," he said.

But he still needs to find a new, permanent home for them.

"The Lord doesn't close any door that he doesn't open up a better one," Whisnant said. "And I'm waiting for the other door to open."