California Parishioners Praise God After Getting Back Beloved Church Their Pastor Tried to Sell

Singers praise God at the Zion Missionary Baptist Church in East Palo Alto on June 7. Photo by Sue Dremann
Singers praise God at the Zion Missionary Baptist Church in East Palo Alto on June 7. Photo by Sue Dremann

After being shut out of their church and told to leave the grounds by their pastor last June, the 20 or so members of Zion Missionary Baptist Church are again praising God.

The church, which is located at 891 Weeks St. in East Palo Alto, was shuttered in June 2014 after its then-pastor Andre Harris decided to retire. What he did not tell the congregants was that he was selling the church and an adjacent home, which the congregation owns, according to a lawsuit church members filed last July in San Mateo County Superior Court.

Harris and others named in the lawsuit settled with the congregation on March 20, returning the church to the congregation. The terms are confidential, but the principal plaintiff in the case, deacon Arthel Coleman, said he is satisfied with the agreement. The church members have their property back, and its doors are open again.

A stained-glass window above the pulpit still bears the acronym BACC — for the church’s name under Harris, Born Again Christian Center — but the church has returned to its roots and its founding name, which dates to 1969. Once more than 100 members strong, its numbers had dwindled since Harris became pastor in 1999, Coleman said. But church members said they will work hard to once again fill its pews.

On a recent Sunday, Coleman greeted the faithful at the door. A woman helped congregants to their seats. Her white and silver usher’s pin gleamed against a dark, neatly pressed suit. The church members entered as gospel music swelled from boom-box speakers. A little girl handed out paper fans so congregants wouldn’t use the Bibles when fervor took over.

Guest Pastor Cleo Barkus, past president of the Pure Gospel Church of God in Christ, raised his arms up and looked to the heavens.

“God’s in the midst,” he said.

Barkus turned to his Bible and opened to a passage from the Psalms.

“Lord, who shall abide in the tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness and speaketh truth in his heart. … He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent,” he read.

The words seemed like a parable of what allegedly had taken place here for nearly a year: a reward taken against the innocent and the righteous work that helped save the beloved church.

The trouble began in early May 2014. Church members found a real estate sign on the next-door house at 871 Weeks St., which had served as the rent-free home for the pastor and his family.

San Mateo County deed records showed the Harrises had the ownership transferred to themselves as a “gift.”

Soon after, a for-sale sign also appeared on the church property. When members gathered on June 29, 2014, for services and to demand an explanation regarding the sales, Harris reportedly handed them notices of ex-communication and barred them from entering.

Coleman filed suit against the pastor and his wife, the pastor’s brother Kenneth Harris and his wife, Rhona Edgerton-Harris — who were the real estate agents and notary in the transactions — the church trustees and the home’s new buyer. Church members Yvonne Duncan, Christine Porter and Elaine Blue later joined the suit, according to court records.

Coleman’s attorney put a stop to the church sale and filed restrictions on the deed to the house. The church’s bylaws state that its real property is not to be sold or transferred without approval of members of the church, according to the lawsuit.

The Harrises and their attorneys did not return a request for comment on the lawsuit or the settlement.

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SOURCE: Palo Alto Weekly
Sue Dremann

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