Etched crudely in the concrete sidewalk in front of the three-bedroom Colonial at 3215 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue is the name of a man who has lorded over Ward 8 for decades.
Phinis Jones is many things—politico, campaign financier, entrepreneur, community developer —and he is about to add another title to his portfolio: church founder.
“I am excited about this new opportunity to minister to and meet the need of the residents of this community,” Jones, a founding board member of New Life Ministries, says in a news release. “I commit my time, connections, and resources to the vision, mission, and goals of this important community ministry.”
Connections and resources are a Jones specialty, and they all revolve around 3215 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. Within its four walls exists a crazy quilt of certified business entities, nonprofits, holding corporations, and private ventures, most of them tied to Jones and his business partner Monica T. Ray, who was campaign treasurer for former Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May.
Business ties and transactions involving Jones, Ray, and May are enough to drive a PriceWaterhouse auditor bonkers: Millions in federal funding for an affordable housing complex for seniors, with management and development fees paid to companies owned by Jones; a sweetheart land deal between Jones’ development partners and a church where Ray and May were officers that loaned them money to complete the sale; dozens of community development ventures involving Jones and Ray that compete for the same publicly funded, minority set-aside contracts. Much of the book on Jones is dated, but his game is still strong. Along with Ray, he has secured a piece of the action in the Washington Wizards facility project, in which their firm, Capitol Services Management Inc., employs a “high tech and high touch” approach to community outreach. The contract was let even as May, an occasional business partner of Ray and Jones, was still in office.
Jones believes in giving as well as receiving. He and just two of his companies have contributed $7,900 to political candidates since 2013, and he personally has donated $14,650 to political action committees over the years, including a $10,000 payment to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s FreshPAC in 2015. The Washington Times reported in 2013 that he and his various companies and other businesses that reside at 3215 MLK Jr. Ave. contributed more than $60,000 to D.C. politicians from 2006 through 2013—often bundling contributions from associates and their own business entities to avoid campaign finance limitations.
Yet he has his flaws. Court records show he has racked up personal and business judgments against him in excess of $155,000 in D.C. and Maryland from 2000 to 2013, The Times reported. He was a former property manager at the Park Southern affordable housing complex, which the city seized after discovering a pattern of bad debt and “gross mismanagement,” according to court filings. In 1997, City Paper reported that Jones was investigated for fraud and breach of contract in connection with a Congress Heights job training center.
Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corp.—founded by Jones, run by Ray, and located at 3215 MLK Jr. Ave.—also has provided construction, maintenance, and neighborhood outreach services for slum-condition properties owned by Sanford Capital that are slated for redevelopment at the Congress Heights Metro station, and is suing to gain control of a crucial adjacent property. Although the city acquired the properties, Jones stood to receive a $5,000 per year payment under a Community Benefits Agreement with Sanford, had a development deal gone through. Developer Geoffrey Griffis, then Sanford’s real estate partner, told The Post that he didn’t know what the money was for. “I don’t know what they actually do,” he said of Jones’ company at the time.
Church founder is arguably the ideal next step for Jones, as strange as it might seem for a man who already juggles real estate, community development, politics, nonprofits, and private business interests.
Beginning in September, New Life will hold services for the time being in a multi-purpose conference room at the back of the Community College Preparatory Academy, an adult charter school at 2405 MLK Jr. Ave. that May founded—and where Ray serves as the academy’s trustee and founding board member and Jones chairs its Friends of CC Prep committee. The space will come rent-free, says academy head Connie Spinner, who describes Jones and company as “a small group coming together and doing good.” Says Spinner, “Our hope is that the church will be a part of the community and that they keep their good going.”
Business filings at D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs show Jones as a director of New Life along with Shelley Rice and Ernest D. Lyles Sr., the latter of whom says New Life’s business office will be located at 3309 MLK Jr. Ave., a detached single-family residence assessed at $233,120 and classified for tax purposes as “blighted real property.”
Until recently, Lyles had been pastor at the formerly known A.P. Shaw—Congress Heights United Methodist Church, where he served for more than 30 years. “It was my desire to retire and do my own thing,” the 62-year-old says. “I chose to move on to another ministry.”
That ministry includes 27 congregants whom Lyles consider founders. Its first order of business is to partner with Parkway Overlook Tenants Association to advocate for protecting affordable housing as the Section 8 project undergoes redevelopment, he says. “Once you start out [as a church], it’s not an uncommon practice,” Lyles says.
New Life also will work with the athletic director at Johnson Middle School to develop after-school programs and plans to conduct outreach to ex-offenders and their family members. “That community needs Christ,” the pastor says.
Lyles says he first met Jones a decade ago when Lyles was sponsoring cultural awareness tours in West Africa. Jones became an officer at a church that, along with a nonprofit, raised money to support a school project in West Ghana and projects in Senegal and Gambia. “When it comes to buildings, they don’t go to a bank and take out loans over there,” he says. “They build as they are able.”
New Life’s approach to ministry, Lyles says, particularly where government contracts are concerned, will be “to approach [social problems] from a spiritual perspective to see how God can play a role.”
Asked how New Life is paying for the building at 3309 MLK Jr. Ave., Lyles says his founders are tithers, meaning they pay a tenth of their annual earnings to support the church and its ministry. “That’s what Christians do. That’s what the Book of God tells us to do.”
Lyles says he doesn’t know about Jones’ far-flung business activities and projects. Jones did not respond to an email seeking comment. “I don’t know who his business partners are,” Lyles says of his church co-founder.
That’s a conscious decision, the pastor says. “There was this church where the pastor had officers bring in their pay stubs to show they were tithing; I don’t do that,” he says. “If they say this is my tithe, I have no cause to question it, like, ‘What’s going on, you prostitutin’ on the side?’ No. I take it, and I bless it, and I thank God and use it for my ministry.”