In this time of political crisis, District citizens in search of leadership end up staring into a void. They can’t look to their elected leaders, who authored the disasters of home rule. And the performance of their appointed leadersthe control boardis hardly inspiring. So, desperate residents often turn to the city’s religious leaders. But two recent battles dividing D.C. churches suggest that pastors, like politicians, may be more interested in their own well-being than in the welfare of their suffering flocks.
The disputes have exposed the wealth that some D.C. churches have amassed, as well as the tendency of pastors to rule their spiritual fiefdoms with a firm hand and resist accountability to the unsuspecting congregations that support their lifestyles and peccadilloes. Sounds a lot like the District government for the past 22 yearsperhaps the city’s current crop of leaders picked up its habits at Sunday services.
The first ecclesiastical episode involves the Rev. Robert Childs, pastor of the modest Berean Baptist Church in Ward 4, whom D.C. voters eagerly turned to last November to heal the city’s dying public school system. Less than five months after taking his seat on the D.C. school board, the Rev. Childs was temporarily toppled from his pulpit in April by Berean Baptist trustees alarmed over his handling of church funds. The trustees were also troubled by an ongoing IRS investigation into Berean’s finances and its alleged failure to pay withholding taxes for church employees.
Among other matters, the trustees wanted to know just how thoroughly Childs had allowed preaching and politics to mix. Childs’ victorious school board campaign, they feared, might have benefited from church funds, including a cashed-in $12,000 certificate of deposit. (The city’s Office of Campaign Finance examined the allegation but found no evidence warranting an investigation.) Also at issue was the reverend’s hiring of an assistant minister at a $30,000 annual salary without prior approval. To top it off, Childs allegedly used church funds to lease a Mercedes-Benz that was later involved in an accident and wasn’t carrying insurance.
But Childs quickly showed he had learned a thing or two from rubbing elbows with the likes of Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. and other seasoned city pols. Eleven days after his ouster, the deposed pastor organized Berean’s “Disciples Alive” youth choir into his own band of rebels, who flexed their May Day muscle Soviet-style.
The 100 or so youths marched on the church May 1 and forced the stunned trustees to reinstate Childs. Once back in the pulpit, Childs didn’t exactly invoke Jesus Christ’s teachings on forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead, he immediately sent the board packing and solidified his hold over the church where he has preached for more than 12 years. Childs earns an annual salary of more than $47,000, which he supplements with $15,000 in yearly school board pay.
Afterward, Childs appeared to claim that his power play had the blessing of the Lord. “What we do at the church is all spiritual,” he was quoted as saying in the May 3 edition of the Washington Times.
That’s basically the same defense that the Rev. Michael Kelsey and 32 officials of the New Samaritan Baptist Church at 1100 Florida Ave. NE have used against a suit filed by former D.C. Councilmember John Ray and several fellow parishioners. Just after Ray stepped away from an 18-year council career last Januaryand four failed attempts to gain the mayor’s officehe immediately jumped into a hardball legal battle against Kelsey for a number of alleged financial improprieties.
The embattled church leaders have hired the politically well-connected law firm of Leftwich & Douglaswhich has snagged numerous contracts from the Barry administrationto argue that D.C. Superior Court has no standing to pry into private church matters.
In numerous motions filed before Judge Shellie Bowers, L&D lawyers Frederick A. Douglas and Curtis Boykin contend that the allegations of financial misconduct raised by Ray are “ecclesiastical matters or the subject of spiritual doctrine,” not court business. The hefty case file in Ray v. Kelsey, already 3 inches thick and fattening, consists mainly of motions by Douglas and Boykin raising that argument over and over.
Bowers denied their latest motion for dismissal July 1, but Douglas and Boykin immediately filed an appeal, which is pending.
Ray’s lawsuit provides a rare glimpse into the finances of one of the city’s more prosperous congregations. His court filings report that the church rakes in over $800,000 annually in “recorded offerings” from the congregation, and pays Kelsey more than $83,00 in salary, housing allowance, pension, and medical and dental benefits.
But Ray et al. claim in their filings that Kelsey’s yearly take is much higher. The lawsuit points out that numerous other offerings, including one at Christmas and another on the anniversary of the pastor’s hiring, are collected from the congregation and not recorded. For weeks prior to those offerings, the lawsuit notes that church deacons make special appeals to churchgoers to give generously, and only in cashno checks, please. According to the lawsuit, cash is given “in large amounts.”
The lawsuit also contends that Kelsey and the church’s boards of trustees and deacons have refused to disclose information about a host of financial matters: Kelsey’s compensation, an interest-free $256,000 loan the church made to Kelsey to buy a $325,000 home in Glenn Dale, Md. (even the city’s spiritual leaders are tax-dodging commuters), the minister’s $28,000 annual housing allowance (three times his annual mortgage payments), and the $50,000 Mercedes-Benz church members purchased as a “surprise” Christmas gift for Kelsey last December.
LL wonders whether Ray might have brought his suit out of jealousynot even a councilmember gets those kinds of perks.
Ray’s filings claim that several meetings with church leaders, including one last Dec. 20 concerning the Mercedes-Benz purchase, failed to produce answers to questions about church finances. “The pastor and the chairs of the deacon board and the trustees board make most decisions unilaterally, operate secretly and fail to provide necessary information to the church’s membership,” the plaintiffs contend in one filing.
Ray also fingers church leaders for allegedly failing to inform the congregation of a critical 1993 audit of church finances by the accounting firm of Buck, Allmond & Co., which concluded that “the church has no effective system of internal accounting controls.” The church’s entire financial record, claim the plaintiffs, was contained in “a small, loose-leaf notebook” with no receipts or invoices to document spending and income.
According to the court filings, the auditors also found that “the church has made loans to members and sons of the church…and by doing so it endangers its tax-exempt status.”
Ray is asking for a halt to all these practices, which he claims are illegal, designed to “mislead” church members, and jeopardize New Samaritan’s tax exemption.
In a letter issued to the congregation last February, Kelsey & Co. quoted the Bible seven times in rebutting Ray’s lawsuit. “The allegations of misconduct being made are contrary to the word of the Lord,” the letter signed by Kelsey and three church leaders stated. The letter also claimed that the actions being challenged were proper and covered by “longstanding, internal privacy policies.”
Kelsey and Childs may be offering the best argument yet for maintaining the separation of church and state.
OLD BOTTLE, NEW WINE?
Former D.C. Council chair Arrington Dixon, seeking to return to political office after a 15-year absence, got a fresh reminder of what it’s like to deal with the District’s bureaucratic maze these days. Dixon and his aides spent the better part of three weeks making countless phone calls to D.C. officials to obtain the necessary permit for the tent put up on his lawn last weekend. The tent sheltered the 300-plus residents who turned out for his campaign kickoff. Dixon is running for the at-large council seat held by Linda Cropp before she was elected council chair on July 22.
“Obviously, one of the things I need to focus on is bringing better management to government,” Dixon noted after his recent brush with the city’s immovable bureaucracy.
To those who view him as a throwback in a city that can’t seem to produce fresh talent, Dixon counters that he’s new wine, albeit in an old bottle. Since losing the council chair to the late Dave Clarke in 1982, Dixon says he has followed a path that will make him a better politician, including starting and running his own business, traveling around the world, and visiting “every major city” on the planet.
“I’m not just recycled; I’m coming back with a lot more experience,” he boasts.
Dixon’s self-endorsement has earned a second from government watchdog Marie Drissel, the Rottweiler of D.C. politics. When voters dismiss Dixon as yesterday’s headline, Drissel says she tells them, “You don’t know him. You’ve never met him.” Drissel attended last Saturday’s kickoff and immediately signed on as a campaign co-chair. She was particularly impressed that Dixon already had a web page up and running (www.metro-dc.com/adfordc).
“I’ve been involved in campaigns since  and I’ve just never seen such a smooth operation,” she said with unbridled enthusiasm.
Dixon hopes to use his Saturday campaign kickoff to secure the D.C. Democratic State Committee’s selection as a temporary replacement for Cropp when the ruling body of the city’s dominant political party meets Aug. 14. He is locked in a struggle with longtime Ward 5 State Committee member Paula Nickens and lesbian activist Sabrina Sojourner, the city’s elected statehood lobbyist to the U.S. Senate.
The State Committee’s choice will serve only until a special election is held in December to fill the vacancy. Regardless of what the State Committee does, Dixon vowed last weekend he would be on the December ballot. But he could use a win before the State Committee this week to discourage challengers and jumpstart his political comeback.
Footnote: State Committee chair Amanda Hatcher Lyon insisted this week she has kept her pledge to remain neutral in the contest before her panel to pick a successor to Cropp. Lyon denied complaints by Dixon supporters that she was backing one of his rivals. “You cannot find anyone who will say I have campaigned on behalf of any candidate,” Lyon said.
Councilmember Sandy Allen’s task force investigating the possibility of luring a prison to Ward 8 has already visited a privately run state-of-the-art pen in Louisiana on a trip paid for by the Corrections Corp. of America (CCA). CCA, which is likely to be among the bidders to house District inmates in the new Ward 8 prison, is also expected to pick up the tab for an upcoming trip by the seven-member task force to inspect one of CCA’s prisons in Tennessee. And Wackenhut, a competitor of CCA’s in the private prison racket, wants to fly the citizen advisory panel to look over one of its prisons in Florida. You can bet the junketeers will be eating better than the inmates of the facilities they are visiting.
Allen spokesperson Bob Bethea says the potential bidders can pay for the trip because the task force, headed by Ward 8 school board member Linda Moody, is a private group of advisers, not a government body. Allen set up the task force to gather information and community input because she wants to be ready when Mayor Barry proposes building a Ward 8 prison as part of his east-of-the-river economic development and jobs program.
Unlike other components of the mayor’s development plan, the Ward 8 prison stands a good chance of seeing the light of day. The D.C. rescue bill, which was signed into law last week by President Bill Clinton, exempts the project from review by the persnickety National Capital Planning Commission. And CCA is poised to acquire a strategic plot of land adjacent to the defunct D.C. Village, the most logical spot for a Ward 8 prison. Congress authorized the National Park Service to swap the plot with a nearby plot owned by CCA. The prison would give Ward 8 a leg up on the one part of the local economy that’s always booming: crime.CP
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