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Congregants of merge churches, who came together after Katrina, in dispute over property rights

5th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

By C.C. Campbell-Rock
Contributing Writer

Amid Black History Month celebrations, a tale of two churches has emerged in New Orleans reminiscent of the same injustices African Americans have fought against for centuries in America. From land grabs to redlining and predatory lending, to post-Katrina property auctions by the city and gentrification, Blacks in New Orleans continue to struggle to hold on to their hard-earned land.

Trying to hold on to their church’s land is the mission of Keep Our Legacy Alive (KOLA), a coalition of former members of the historic Central Congregational United Church in Christ (CCUCC). KOLA is suing Central St. Matthew United Church in Christ (CSM-UCC) to stop the church from selling off the remainder of Central’s properties. Central-St-Matthew-Church-0

The group is praying that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal in March 2018 will deliver the property back to members of Central Congregational Church, so the church’s properties can continue to be used for activities that benefit residents in the Bienville Street corridor and its historic legacy in the state’s civil rights movement can be memorialized

“We are asking the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal to rule that there can be no sale of the property, unless the proper consent was given by all involved,” says KOLA’s attorney Ernest Jones, a longtime civil rights lawyer.

Central St. Matthew is a hybrid entity, the result of merging two churches, Central Congregation United Church in Christ (Central) founded by African Americans in 1872. St. Matthew United Church in Christ (St. Matthew), located at 1333 South Carrollton Avenue, was initially the German Evangelical Church of Carrollton founded in 1849 by German immigrants.

KOLA is fighting to retain Central’s properties so members can continue its mission to serve the African-American community and the less fortunate in Mid-City and keep the civil rights legacy of Central alive.

Central Congregational Church holds a unique place in New Orleans’ African-American history. The church’s roots date back to 1846 and several churches run by African Americans. St. James AME Church became St. James Congregational Church. Congregants from St. James and Morris Brown AME founded the University Church at Straight University, before the business college combined with New Orleans University to become Dillard University. In 1872, the congregants of the blended churches incorporated Central Congregational Church. In 1945, Central moved to its current location at 2401 Bienville Street.Bell-tower-statue-020518

Central Congregational Church became a pivotal place for social and political activism during Reconstruction. Some of its original congregants were Civil War leaders, including Captain James H. Ingraham, who led the effort to establish Central, Colonel James Lewis, brothers Captain Robert H. Isabelle and Thomas Isabelle, and Cesar and Felix Antoine among others. Lewis, Cesar Antoine and the Isabelle brothers were among the first African Americans to serve in the Louisiana Legislature. They fought for the right to vote and for integration of public schools.

A waystation for post-Reconstruction civil rights leaders, in 1915, the Central Congregational hosted a citywide banquet for Booker T. Washington. In the 1960s, it housed Freedom Riders, and members were in the vanguard of political and educational advancement in the Black community.

Several members of Central Congregational Church have been “honored for their dedicated service to the community and to Negro education.” The Orleans Parish School Board named schools for Mrs. Florence J. Chester, Miss Mary D. Coghill, the Reverend Dunn and Dr. Lord Beaconsfield Landry, Lawrence D. Crocker, Alfred Lawless, James Lewis and Fannie C. Williams. Dillard University named a women’s dormitory for Miss Fannie C. Williams and the new Health and Physical Science Hall for its former president, Dr. Albert W. Dent and Samuel DuBois Cook.

“I played in church every Sunday at Central Congregational Church. [in New Orleans]. As a matter of fact, Andrew Young was a member of the church, and there were a lot of other local dignitaries who were part of that church. It is an amazing church. My father used to tell me all the time, he says, ‘I don’t care what time you get in from your gig, you’ve got to get up and go to church and play on Sunday morning.’ And so that was a big part of my upbringing,” says world-renowned jazz trumpeter Terrance Blanchard.

In the beginning, the merger seemed divinely inspired. Both churches were struggling because of dwindling congregations in post-Katrina New Orleans. Both churches worshipped under the same denomination, so a merger could prove to be the saving grace for both. Moreover, the merger would bridge the racial divide between a Black congregation and a white congregation; one downtown, the other uptown, both of which worship under the same United Church in Christ denomination.

Shortly after Katrina, Central Congregational was invited to use St. Matthew’s chapel in which to hold services, for a rental fee. For two to three years, the churches worshipped and functioned separately. “At one point, St. Matthew invited us to worship in the main chapel with them,” explains Attorney William Boveland, a former member of Central and the current board president of Central St. Matthew.

The churches later entered two covenants, one to worship together as one and the other to develop into one organization. “We decided to formally merge the two churches together in 2014,” Boveland continues. The two churches were dissolved and the new entity, Central St. Matthew (CSM) became the owner of both churches’ assets, including property and programs.

After Central St. Matthew was born, many Central members were shocked to learn that Central’s properties would be sold. “Some members of Central and St. Matthew voted to merge but Central members never dreamed Central’s properties would be sold,” says Cheryl Cramer, a lifelong congregant of Central. and KOLA member.

“Ten years ago, this would have been a beautiful thing; people working together on the same mission,” says Richard Timpton, III. Timpton’s family had worshiped at Central for generations. “The same thing happened to us that happened historically, everybody got civil rights but us.”

Timpton and his wife, Paulette, raised their children at Central. Timpton served a year as board president at Central St. Matthew but stepped down when the issue of selling Central’s properties arose. “I was in the position Wilson (Boveland) is in now. I tried to make sure our voices were heard but they (CSM) had a plan of action that confused and misdirected us,” he explains.

“Central was critical to the development of African-American rights and progress,” he says, noting that the move to sell Central’s properties was a reversal of the successes made in the fight for civil and equal rights in New Orleans. “I didn’t want to associate with that. They used me as a figurehead and I wasn’t quite feeling that. The thing that breaks my heart is my mother is 95 and she is not happy. She says she is not a hypocrite and she can’t go to worship where we’re not respected.”

Paulette Timpton sees the CSM move to sell Bienville as a “classic gentrification technique, “and that the goals of the two churches are different. “We were more about the service and they’re more about the look of “unity.” She says losing Central’s properties has been “physically, emotionally and spiritually tough.”

“Central should have had a say in what happens to the property. The pillars came from Straight College; and they wanted to sell the pipes from the pipe organ,” Paulette says of the loss of historic items from the church. She thinks CSM will use the money from the sale of Central’s property to fix up St. Matthew.

“We haven’t given up yet. We still have a mission. We want to know whether the merge church owns the property. We maintain they do not,” Paulette concludes.

“Not every member of Central had the same feelings about selling,” Cramer adds, while acknowledging some African-American members were in favor of selling the Church, the HUME Child Development Center, an apartment complex, a large parking lot and rental properties.

Several of Central’s properties have been sold, and three are on the auction block, including the Church, its office, and the HUME Child Development Center, Corporate Realty is selling Central’s remaining 39,000 sq. footage for $1.5 million in cash.

“Once those people, the white ones in that church (St. Matthew) saw we had property they could use, they saw an opportunity to use that property to fix their church up. When they merged the churches, we didn’t know they merged the properties, too. CSM virtually stole it from us, sold some of the properties for virtually nothing,” says Margie Shorter, a KOLA member and lifelong Central congregant.

“St. Matthew is land locked and only has its church and a vacant school, and no place to park,” Shorter adds. “At one time, Central owned all the downtown side of Bienville Street, including the HUME Center, an apartment complex, the Landis Davis House and the Church sanctuary.”

“In fact, my wife and I were married at Central 44 years ago on June 16,” Joseph Shorter affirms. The couple’s sons were baptized and confirmed at Central as was Margie Shorter.

“This is one of the most egregious assaults on property rights, I’ve ever seen. It’s the members of KOLA versus folks that come from uptown, says Joseph Shorter, a retired policy planner, who worked for Mayor Moon Landrieu and Governor Edwin Edwards.

After living in Atlanta, post-Katrina, the Shorters returned to New Orleans and found Central members worshiping at St. Matthew. “A merger discussion had emerged,” says Joseph Shorter. “The instigators were members of St. Matthew Church.”

Shorter said he rose to object to the discussion of merging assets. “We were supposed to be one church in two locations.” Shorter was told that his motion was out of order. When he brought a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order to a subsequent meeting, one St. Matthew member questioned the authenticity of his copy. An apology was issued later but “by that time the blended congregation had agreed to merge assets.”

“What we are dealing with are people who lack intellectual integrity and who had a plan that they kept secret from Central,” Shorter explains. “What we’re dealing with is a case of deception and outright thievery.”

To save the properties, Karen Lodrig brought the Atlanta-based Perkins & James architectural firm, accompanied by Walter Young to present a plan for redevelopment of Central’s properties into affordable housing units. Young and his brother, The Rev. Andrew Young Jr., a close adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., former Atlanta mayor, and U.N. Ambassador were brought up in Central Congregational Church. Andrew was ordained there.

The Board of Central St. Matthew rejected the offer, even though the developers agreed to put up their own money to do the development. “What Central St. Matthew wanted was for KOLA to buy back Central’s properties,” KOLA members say.

“The Blacks on the board, when the first covenant was done, thought it was in the best interest of the church to get resources to renovate Central Church and they wanted the legacy to continue on Bienville,” says Cramer. Instead, she says, the board of CSM wanted to “sell Central’s properties to balance the books.”

“People saw us doing things in the neighborhood,” says Lodrig. “We distributed commodities, cub scout and boy scout troops met there, we had bike races. Central has great potential for community use. People are moving in who need services and a church home. They (CSM) wanted to stay on Carrollton. That’s ok but they shouldn’t take our properties.”

Central sustained wind damages from Hurricane Katrina, so CSM got a $100,000 grant from the National United Church in Christ organization. “The Hope Shall Bloom” grant was allocated to fix up Central but one of the stipulations of the grant was that the money could not be used to bring Central back as a church. “The church could be fixed up but only for a multifunctional use,” says Boveland. The funds were used to gut the church, repair the roof, and board up the church.

KOLA members say Central congregants never got a full accounting of what was done with the grant money.

“We did agree to pool our resources,” says Lodrig, a former member of CSM’s Board of Trustees. “We’d have all of these properties and fix them up. The bottom line is we couldn’t get the money from the bank to renovate. In the last covenant we said put properties together. The initial agreement was that the sanctuary was supposed to be for ministries and Carrollton would be for church services. “When the Take Action Committee voted to sell the Bienville properties and fix up the Carrollton property,” KOLA was formed.

“Central St. Matthew didn’t like our developers’ plan. It was a beautiful plan but CSM rejected it. I don’t think it’s right to ask us to pay CMS for our own property,” says Lodrig.

Boveland admits that Central St. Matthew has a $90,000 deficit “because of a lack of membership and a growing list of expenses.” CSM has been running on money reserves, “We had to look at the reality of the situation. When we run out of money that’s the end of St. Matthew and Central Congregational,” he adds.

“In 2014, the congregation got together and decided to sell the property. They considered three options, sell both churches, sell St. Matthew or sell Central. A committee recommended to sell Bienville to raise additional funds because “There was no money available to fix up Central and the Carrollton property was fixed up already and we couldn’t afford to buy another church.” Boveland said CMS tried to borrow the estimated $1.5 million to fix up the properties but a SBA loan was denied.

“The KOLA group offered to buy the properties for thousands less than a local architectural firm offered. We had decided to go with KOLA…but KOLA was never able to prove they had the funds available to make their plan a reality. They (developers) wanted us (CSM) to finance the development of the property.”

Cramer disputes Boveland’s version of events. “We were trying to settle the property title issue. The developers were going to put up the money to develop a senior citizen center, affordable housing, and a community center but they wanted to know that we owned the title, first. CSM could have retained the developed properties, which would generate revenues and Central’s legacy would have remained intact. KOLA never had the money to buy Central’s property,” Cramer explains.

NANO, a white, female-owned architectural firm has agreed to buy Central’s properties. Central’s land is listed with Corporate Realty for $1.5 million in cash.

KOLA’s dream of halting the sale of Central’s properties last month was dashed by the New Orleans City Council, which voted 4-3 to allow for zoning changes to turn the residential neighborhood into a commercial zone, which has paved the way for the sale of the property to NANO.

“The City Planning Commission voted against the zoning request, but the City Council overrode them, now you’re looking at a case of gentrification on a massive scale. It’s going on all over the city,” says Joseph Shorter, a retired government executive.

Last week, Faye Davis Kaufman, a former Central congregant and KOLA member, wrote a letter to the City Council about the zoning change. “Thank you for supporting the opposition to the zoning change requested by Central St. Matthew building (CSM) where property formerly owned by blacks ends up in white hands to be sold for white profit.

“We have witnessed this scenario too often: Black farmers, the Gullah people, inner-city elderly, aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, etc. It was a sad commentary on one council member’s rationalization, who voted to allow the zoning change when she concluded that “as of today CSM owns the property” but refused to acknowledge that also as of today the current Master Plan does not allow the zoning change that is requested! Inconsistency rules!

“NANO, the buyer/developer of the Bienville properties, wanted the zoning change to seal the deal for their purposes. CSM wants money, PERIOD. The white attorney/member of CSM who assisted in creating the “so-called merger” document had the audacity to say during a congregational meeting that CSM desired the highest possible price for the property; even if the buyer wanted to convert the church to a strip club! I don’t recall hearing any negative responses voiced by the congregation after that stunning comment, not even from the pastor (who began serving CSM after the “so-called merger”),” Kaufman wrote.

Whether Pastor Philip Brockett had a hand in the merger of assets is in dispute. When asked for an interview, for this article, Pastor Brockett politely declined. “I’m relatively new and I wasn’t here for all that went on,” he said, referring all questions to Wilson Boveland.

Brockett was indeed not in New Orleans when Central St. Matthew was incorporated in 2010. A native of rural Ohio, Brockett came to CSM from a church in Meriden, CT. However, Boveland said Pastor Brockett arrived to take the helm at Central St. Matthew at the end of 2014. And while Brockett may want to be the Pontius Pilate of the merger affair, KOLA members think differently. “Brockett created the committee that voted to sell,” says Cramer.

Karen and Andrea parents, Wilfred and Whilemina Lodrig were deeply devoted Central members. Their father served as president of the congregation. “That’s my church home. I will not return to CMS. Pastor (Brockett) may step aside now, but he started that. He can’t say it’s not him. He destroyed our church home. Honestly, he’s trying to steal our black heritage, says Lodrig.

In the interest of full disclosure, the owners of The Louisiana Weekly’s grandfather C.C. Dejoie, the newspaper’s founder and great-grandfather, Aristide Dejoie, a pharmacist, attended Central Congregational Church. C.C. Dejoie was a member of Central’s Board of Trustees. “It’s my understanding that my grandfather put up money to acquire church property,” says Renette Dejoie Hall, the leader of the family-owned newspaper. Cousin Michael Dejoie joined KOLA in opposing the sale of Central’s properties.

Aside from the sanctuary, the heartbeat of Central is the Hume Center, which was the first early learning center for African-American children in New Orleans. Opened under the guidance of Rev. Henderson H. Dunn in 1911, the center is named for educator and Central Associate Pastor Isabella Hume.

“At one point, Hume Center taught the Who’s Who in Black New Orleans,” says Kim Ford, a former congregant who married husband, Mark, 33 years ago. at Central.

Today, the Hume Center for Child Development is still serving the Mid-City community. However, the building that houses the prestigious learning center is on the auction block, too.

Lifelong Central member Robert N. Perry, III, the Hume Child Development Center Board Chair, is the grandson of Reverend Henderson H. Dunn. He has joined KOLA’s effort to reclaim Central’s properties. Perry initially supported the sale of Central’s properties.

The Louisiana Weekly obtained a letter via Brockett to Boveland, in which Perry agreed to sell.

“Some CSM officers promised to use funds from those obtained from the sale to rebuild and support Hume Child Development Center and enhance other local community services. Since then they have reneged on every promise,” Perry explains.

“I vehemently oppose any sale of those properties for a variety of reasons. One must remember that CSM’s debt was not from Hume Child Development Center and the money from the sale of other Central Congregational Church’s properties were not reinvested in its repair. To put it mildly, they have lied, and their intent has been revealed. So, I have every right to oppose the sale of the remaining Central Congregational Church property.”

Perry is exasperated about what he said is an unjust, unfair in rent. CMS had doubled the Center’s rent from $850 monthly to $1700. In a letter to CMS, he wrote, “The ‘rent’ that Hume has been paying to Central Saint Matthew is essentially a gift to that church since Hume Child Development Center is a mission of Central Congregational Church and has been a mission since the Center was founded so long ago. In fact, there was no rent or occupancy paid to Central Church before CSM came on the scene.”

Perry says the Hume Board of Directors has decided to continue to pay $650 per month and will hold the balance in escrow until the property ownership issue is settled.

Boveland says the rent is used to cut the grass, make repairs and for insurance. “Future buyers of the Hume building are amenable to allowing Hume to stay at the location. If Hume leaves, the new owner will find another daycare operator to open in that site,” Boveland concludes.

This article originally published in the February 5, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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