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Church may be the last of its kind in state

Many years ago, it wasn’t that uncommon to see union churches – two churches that share a common building – across the state of North Carolina.
Today, it’s very rare, and Lincoln County may have the only one left in the state.
Salem Lutheran and United Church of Christ, located on Startown Road, is a union church dating back to the late eighteenth century.
Retired United Church of Christ pastor Linn Finger, who grew up attending Salem, thinks the church is now the only one of its kind in North Carolina. Yet he says union churches used to be the rule rather than the exception.
“There used to be lots,” said Finger. “It was a practical matter.”
Finger remembers when several area churches – including Daniel’s Lutheran on Reepsville Road, formerly known as Daniel’s Lutheran and United Church of Christ – were union churches.
He says that when he was in Pennsylvania in the 1960s, almost every church was a union church.
Now, the practice of two congregations, often of different denominations, sharing a common church is all but nonexistent.
Enter Salem Lutheran and United Church of Christ.
According to Susan Harris, a member of Salem Lutheran and chairperson of the church history committee for both churches, Lutheran Synod records show that Salem Lutheran was established in 1796.
Although some records have been lost over the years, meaning there is no documentation of when the United Church of Christ (then known as the German Reform Church) began sharing Salem, records show the church was declared a union church on April 29, 1848.
“The union church aspect is that we share the building,” Harris said.
A 1914 deed shows that both congregations actually own the property.
The churches have separate services, with Salem United Church of Christ worshipping at 9 a.m. and Salem Lutheran meeting at 11 a.m. The churches do have joint Sunday school classes in between the worship services.
On special occasions, like Easter and Christmas Eve, the churches come together for joint services as well. The two congregations also share a homecoming celebration each August.
Things were a bit different when Harris was growing up in the church.
“On the first and third Sundays, the Lutheran church met,” said Harris. “On the second and fourth Sundays, the Reform congregation had its service.”
Back then, the congregations often mixed.
“It didn’t matter which service it was, people came every Sunday,” Harris said.
Despite the fact that the churches are two separate entities, Harris says there has never been any conflict between the two.
“We work together well because we have a lot of joint projects, like Relay for Life,” said Harris. “We both support Christian Ministries.”
Both churches use the same sanctuary and the same cemetery, which predates the church building. One tombstone is written in German and dates back to 1792, four years before records indicate Salem Lutheran was founded.
Each church has a strong German background, as evidenced by things Harris found out when researching Salem.
“When I was doing research some years ago, I remember reading that, when the synod met here, the sermon was preached in German,” Harris said.
Another church tradition that is gone but not forgotten is still evident in the physical structure of the building. You can see different colored brick below two stained glass windows where two separate doors used to be. Women entered through one and men through the other. The sexes also sat on opposite sides of the sanctuary during services.
Finger says he remembers families having ties to both churches, as girls were normally raised in the denomination of the mother and boys in that of their fathers.
Harris has also seen division within families at Salem. She recalls a husband being a member of one church and his wife a member of the other.
“I don’t know how people decided which church they were going to join,” said Harris.
Yet these minor divisions have never kept the two congregations from coexisting peacefully. Last year, there was even talk of calling one pastor to serve both churches and merging the congregations. In the end, each congregation decided to maintain its own denomination.
In 1996, the two churches came together to celebrate Salem’s 200th anniversary. That same year, the building was put on the National Register of Historic Places.
Although both Salem churches are proud of their integrated pasts, they are also looking to the future. Harris says the churches are hoping to erect a new sign out front, one that will be more visible from the road.
A written history of Salem Lutheran and United Church of Christ is in the works, giving both congregations a chance to celebrate the heritage of two special churches living under one roof.
by Allyson Levine

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