A California pastor who said he "didn't want to die in the pulpit" is now being sued by a deacon for trying to sell the church and parsonage without the consent of his congregation, which weren't even aware that their leader was trying to relieve them of their place of worship.
"He claims that the properties were gifted to him by the board. The church belongs to the members," said Deacon Arthel Coleman, who filed the lawsuit reported by the Palo Alto Online. Palo Alto Attorney Stephen Pappas is representing Coleman.
Coleman filed the lawsuit with the support of members of the Born Again Christian Center on Monday, July 28 in San Mateo County Superior Court. The church's angry members feel as if the pastor and his family tried to hoodwink them out of property valued at more than $1 million.
The lawsuit alleges that Born Again Christian Center's pastor, Andre Harris, colluded with his wife, Gloria Edgerton-Harris, the church board of trustees (who are family members of the pastor), real estate agents and the buyer of a home designated as a parsonage, to gain title to the church and home so they could sell them and enrich themselves.
Church members allege in the lawsuit that they were never consulted about selling nor gifting their church located at 891 Weeks Street to the pastor and his wife or a house used as a parsonage at 871 Weeks St. The bylaws of the church, which was established in 1969, prohibit the sale or transfer of church-owned property that does not have the approval of the members.
The lawsuit as cited by Palo Alto Online alleges breach of fiduciary duty and corporate waste; violation of corporation codes that prohibit certain distributions of property from religious nonprofit corporations; attempts to defraud the church and its members; and conversion of the home for the Harrises' personal use.
The members are seeking an injunction against the sale of the church and the voiding of the sale of the parsonage, which closed escrow on July 21. They also want the court to remove the board of trustees, and direct the proper election of a new board as well as a new pastor.
Members say when Harris first came to the church in 1999 they had 100 members, now, they have only 20.
Members say they started having issues with the pastor when he announced that he was going to retire in April.
"He said he didn't want to die in the pulpit," Coleman noted.
They said in early May, they arrived for services one day to find a real estate sign on the parsonage next door. A curious church member did some sleuthing at the county recorder's office and discovered that the deed to the home had been transferred to the pastor and his wife.
A for-sale sign was later placed on the church property and alarmed members of the church demanded an explanation from the pastor at a June 29 service and protested the sales of the properties.
The pastor allegedly responded by handing them notices of ex-communication and banned them from the church.
"Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Born Again Christian Center is informing you because of your inconsistent attendance over the months or years, we have therefore removed you as a member," said the notice. "You therefore no longer have any rights or privileges to conduct any matter at the said Church. ... We are informing you of your removal and permanent ban of membership at Born Again Christian Center."
Coleman said he was shocked.
"I saw him just the week before. He never said a word. We hugged," Coleman told Palo Alto Online shaking his head.
Sheron Romes, Elaine Blue and the church's usher also received ex-communication notices as well even though they attended church consistently.
"We trusted too much," said Blue wiping away tears.
Coleman explained to Palo Alto Online that when the church needed a new pastor in 1999 when it was still known as Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Harris was working with another pastor at the True Life Baptist Church in East Palo Alto. Harris was invited to lead the congregation on a trial basis and later decided he should stay. The position was unpaid but Harris and his family were allowed to live in the Weeks Street home rent free. The church later changed its name to Born Again Christian Center in 2004.
Coleman alleges that shortly after Harris's arrival, many of his family members soon joined the church and were later made members of the board of trustees which was never formally elected.
Court papers say the board members include Harris' wife, Gloria; two nieces, April Ingram-Black and Laesheia Turner; and Kenneth Harris, the pastor's brother.
Kenneth Harris and his wife, Rhona Edgerton-Harris, are listed as agents with Century 21 Alpha Pacific in East Palo Alto. Their company currently lists the house and church properties for sale. The house, a two-bedroom, one-bath, 790-square-foot home was listed at $399,950. The church, a 2,797-square-foot building located on a 12,502-square-foot lot is listed for $999,950 with a flowery description.
"Excellent location for Ministry. The church's sanctuary seats 120 members with baptismal pool. Church has a Pastor's office with bathroom, kitchen and dining areas and a separate office. Additional facilities are approximately 13 parking spaces & off street parking, men and women separate bathrooms, two storage closets and a [sic] audio room (no equipment). A rare opportunity," the description reads on the listing.