By Alex Hampl
Something isn’t quite right on Sunday mornings at Charles Houston Recreation Center in Alexandria. The center does not open until 1 p.m. but the front doors are wide open. Sounds of loud preaching, greeted with occasional “Amens” are muffled by a heavy door. Men and women dressed in their finest clothes sit on metal folding chairs in a drab white room, behind them a whiteboard and miscellaneous boxes stacked against the painted cinderblocks. This small, plain room in a rec center is now home to St. John’s Baptist Church, an institution in Alexandria since 1925.
The congregation is in limbo – locked out of their building which has sat on the same block since 1925 – thanks to a split among the church’s authorities that has resulted in a civil court case, one that will drag on into 2012. Until that day in court, all of the church’s property has been removed, the locks have been changed and “No Trespassing” signs have been posted all over the St. John’s building at 901 N. Alfred St.
“It’s a family church,” said Richard Diggs, a member of the church since 1961, one of the church’s trustees and a leader in the fight to continue holding services at the building in Old Town. “People come back from all over the country to attend services. It’s a pillar of the community since 1925. Losing it is like losing a family member.”
Members of St. John's Congregation wrote a brief history of the church in Alexandria. According to that history, the “St. John Mission” was formed on N. Alfred St. in 1925. Later that year, Deacon David Askew, the chairman of the Deacon Board, wrote letters to 13 churches asking that the mission be made a church. The council approved and in 1926 the mission became the St. John Baptist Church. The church quickly grew, enough that it was able to purchase the current building, dilapidated at the time, and remodeled it. In 1948 the renovation was complete. Later, in 1973, numerous renovations were made. An educational building and a kitchen with a separate dining area were built then, and 10 years later, after the congregation had outgrown the original capacity, a 100-seat addition was built. In 1993, the church finally convinced the City of Alexandria to sell them the parking lot behind the church.
In December 2000, St. John’s Rev. John W. Johnson retired as pastor, and the church formed a search committee to find his replacement. By 2002, Phillip L. Pointer, Sr. had been installed as the pastor-elect and was given the position permanently the next year. Under Pointer, several major changes were made to the church. In 2004, St. John’s was incorporated as a non-stock, non-profit organization through the State of Virginia State Corporation Commission. About one year later, the church met to appoint trustees who were then verified as legal owners of the church property in court. (St. John’s Baptist Church owns the property and the trustees make the decisions on behalf of the congregation.) This group of trustees had no intention of moving services or selling the property.
Pointer, however, felt differently. After he was appointed pastor, he also named himself CEO. According to evidence submitted in the ongoing civil case, the church’s new Constitution gave Pointer total authority. However, the trustees were the only ones recognized in court as owners of the property. Pointer announced that St. John’s would be merging with Providence Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, Md., a failing church run by his grandfather. The group of trustees led by Diggs alleges that Pointer gave the pastor of that church, his grandfather, a “generous retirement package” and also
failed in his promise to maintain and operate St. John’s in Alexandria. Additionally, sources confirmed that Pointer had put up the church and Providence Baptist as collateral in order to obtain a $1.8 million mortgage on the property in Maryland. Pointer refused to comment for this article, citing his lawyer’s advice.
“We elected the pastor for St. John’s, not for this church in Upper Marlboro,” Diggs said. “I understand he wants to help his granddaddy, and as Christians we are supposed to help people, but not at the expense of 80 other parishioners.”
The Civil Case
Services have stopped being held at the church because the group led by Pointer and Traverse Gray, Sr. is attempting
to sell the property. Approximately 60 – 90 congregation members are currently attending services at Charles Houston; Pointer would not say how many, if any, parishioners had followed him to Upper Marlboro. The group contends it has the right to sell the property because it transferred the deed in a sort of legal end-around. Gray signed a “Confirmation Deed” in 2006 as both “Grantor” and “Grantee” for the St. John Baptist Church. Essentially he had transferred the deed to himself. However, the Diggs group is challenging the legality of this transfer, citing that the previously approved group of trustees was still the owners of the property and that Gray’s deed was never actually approved by the Court.
“The corporation that transferred the deed to Providence St. John’s was not the owner of the property at that time,” said Horace McClerkin, the lead counsel for the Diggs group. “The trustees were the owner of the property, and they do not have the authority to transfer the property without church approval.”
“He [Pointer] just decided he could sign all the papers,” said Diggs. “But it’ll play out in court. It’s just not good for St. John’s, period.”
The case went to court when the Diggs group filed an injunction against Pointer after the pastor had removed all of the church’s property and moved it to Providence Baptist in Maryland. “They removed all the church’s assets, which is why we filed the injunction to begin with,” said McClerkin.
The Pointer group motioned to have the injunction dissolved, and the judge agreed, unless Diggs and the trustees could post a $1.4 million dollar bond, a somewhat unusual measure.
“I believe the burden is not on the trustees and the fiduciaries in this case to put up the million dollar bond,” McClerkin said. “The trustees are the owners of the property.”
Diggs went further, saying, “A bond was not needed and never had been installed in a case in Virginia.”
McClerkin said that he has been “aggressively” pursuing discovery and has served an interrogatory request, but his requests have gone unanswered. “It’s very difficult to respond to a request for documents when you don’t have the documents and you know you don’t have them,” he said.
Diggs added, “They have had 60 days to respond to discovery and they haven’t at all. They seem to think they’re above the law.”
McClerkin did not seem optimistic about a settlement between the sides, given the lack of response from the Pointer camp thus far. “Unless they’re willing to return all the property they took and basically undo everything, I don’t really see settlement as an option,” he said. “It’s really too early to talk about it though, anything can happen.”
The sale of the church is currently at a stand-off and not just because of the disputed ownership and the pending court case. According to sources, Pointer’s group approached developer Eakin/Youngentob about selling the property, valued in 2011 at $303,419. EYA is the developer that has partnered with Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority to build Alexandria’s newest public housing units, many of which are mixed in with the developer’s market-rate town houses in Old Town. Specifically, Eakin/Youngentob just redeveloped the James Bland and James Bland Addition Projects into a mixture of public housing and market rate units, known as the Old Town Commons. In essence the EYA – ARHA partnership controls all the property immediately surrounding the church. According to sources, ARHA was approached by E/Y about developing on the church property but declined to get involved in the church’s ongoing struggle. EYA also had preliminary discussions with Alexandria Capital Planning Staff, who also advised them that there would be difficulties in tearing down the church. EYA now has no plans to move forward with the church property.
To make matters more complicated, St. John’s sits in the heart of the Parker Gray Historic District and is protected by the Parker Gray Board of Architectural Review. Any potential buyer would face the hurdle of having the church designated as an historic site by the Board, thus preventing its demolition. The building itself has always been valued by the City at $0, and it could be deemed a historic site. This has led to the current situation where buyers are wary of the property until after the ownership case is resolved, and even then if the Pointer group is allowed to sell the property, the church may still be protected.
In the Meantime
For now, much of the St. John’s congregation has continued to hold services at Charles Houston, led by minister Charles Hall. It is still unusual for the parishioners, and it is impossible to not be distracted. Still, despite all the acrimony over the cancellation of services at the church and the subsequent injunction, Diggs and the others haven’t forgotten the root of their disagreement – faith.
“There are no bad people on either side,” he said. “It’s just a difference of opinion… Now God will decide.”