Troubled times at Bright Hope

Posted: April 15, 2014

IT WAS FINALLY warm on the Sunday when North Philadelphia's Bright Hope Baptist Church hosted a special guest preacher, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, once led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But inside the church, at Cecil B. Moore Avenue and 12th Street near Temple University, there was a palpable chill.

"It almost seemed like it was a funeral in there," one member said.

That Sunday, March 23, no white-gloved ushers were there to greet worshippers at the church's glass-door entrances.

Nor were ushers posted in the lobby, with its deep-red carpet, or standing in the aisles to lead congregants to seats in the pews.

In a defiant stand against the Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, Bright Hope's leader, the ushers boycotted the services that Sunday.

The ushers - and numerous other church members - were angry about the sudden resignation of an assistant pastor, the Rev. George F. Taylor, who had been at Bright Hope for 48 years.

On March 18, five days before the boycott, Taylor had abruptly resigned during an evening meeting with Johnson and three other church leaders, Taylor's supporters said.

Whispers quickly traveled among churchgoers that Taylor, known for being warm, gregarious and youthful for his 70 years, had been fired for insubordination.

From the pulpit, Johnson, mindful of the tension, told the congregation that despite the rumors, "Rev. Taylor was not fired, nor was he forced to resign."

The ushers weren't the only ones protesting. Several congregants in the pews showed their contempt by putting empty white envelopes in the collection plates.

Neither Johnson nor Taylor responded to requests for comment.

But in interviews with more than a dozen church members - who asked that their names be withheld because they fear retaliation and want to remain in other members' good graces - it seems clear that a storied American church is in turmoil.

The final straw?

The unrest over Taylor's sudden departure was just the latest example of ongoing strife at Bright Hope, which began as a Baptist mission in 1910 and was helmed for many years by the late U.S. Rep. William H. Gray III, and his father and his grandfather before him.

"It was the straw that broke the camel's back," one church member said of Taylor's exit.

In recent years, there have been simmering tensions over who controls the church, and whether church officers - the board of trustees, the deacon board and the presidents' council - have any real authority or have been merely rubber-stamping anything the pastor wants.

Last week, the deacon board sent Johnson a registered letter asking for a formal church meeting to address their concerns, sources said.

On Sunday, March 30, immediately after Johnson preached a fiery, emotional sermon, some members circulated petitions to demand a meeting of all members.

After learning of the petitions, church members said, Johnson began a campaign , visiting a number of the "seasoned saints" - as the church calls its older members - who have been conspicuously absent from Sunday services recently, to ask why they've stopped coming to church.

A litany of complaints

Church members say that in addition to the controversy over Taylor's departure, their complaints include:

* That church officers have been repeatedly rebuffed in their request for an independent audit of church financial operations.

* That Johnson failed to honor his promise to include a charter school and community center in a development that the church is involved with on the nearby Wanamaker School site.

The church-affiliated Bridge of Hope Community Development Corp. and development firm the Goldenberg Group formed a partnership to build a $100 million, 14-story apartment building for Temple University students on the site. As part of the agreement, original plans called for a community center and school to be built on the site - but that never happened.

In a Daily News article last December, Johnson said the church would look for a new site for the school.

"We felt that [Johnson] sold us out," said a church member. That member and others said the deal sounded like a bait-and-switch.

* That Johnson announced in January plans to run for mayor, even though members had made it clear when he was hired that they did not want a pastor with political aspirations. He abruptly withdrew three weeks later.

"We didn't want any more politicians in the pulpit," one member said.

He withdrew from the race after the Daily News reported that he had used his connections to gain admission for his children to Penn Alexander, a prestigious public school, even though he does not live in its catchment area. (The late Arlene Ackerman, the controversial former schools superintendent, served on Bright Hope's board of trustees.)

* The removal of the historic mounted pulpit from which distinguished speakers had spoken, including MLK, the late South African President Nelson Mandela, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

* The letting go of 25 other Bright Hope employees including several young and dynamic assistant pastors and two musicians - without a stated reason.

* The changing of the Sunday bulletin to replace the picture of the black Christ figure from the church's stained-glass windows with pictures of Johnson and his family and other church members.

* And that on Friday, Johnson was scheduled to lead a men's Bible-study class, but told the church he would not attend because he was hosting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf at an event at his Overbrook home.

"He cares more about politics than the church," one member grumbled.

At the crossroads

Members say discontent at Bright Hope is obvious in the large number of members who routinely visit other churches for Sunday services.

Bright Hope has an estimated membership of 3,000 - but Johnson did not respond when asked for the exact membership figure. In the past three weeks, despite higher temperatures, the center of the church has had many empty pews, which members said would have been packed for Sunday services in the past.

Some churchgoers have left Bright Hope altogether amid the conflict.

"I left due to issues and concerns regarding the direction of the church and leadership," said Derrick Sawyer II, 30, who was chairman of the deacon board when he left the church in November 2011. "I really feel for Bright Hope and the members affected."

On the Sunday after the ushers' boycott, Johnson did not come to church. He stayed home to pray, a source said.

Instead of Johnson, the Rev. Carmen Marshall, an assistant pastor, preached a sermon about the church being "one body." She called three other women to the pulpit and linked arms with them.

"If someone throws stones at Rev. [Janis] Nelson, they just might hit me," Marshall said.

On April 5, Johnson met early in the morning with some church leaders and waved a copy of an email from the Daily News asking for comment, telling them he had no intention of answering questions from the press, a source said.

At that meeting, a church elder warned that Bright Hope was in danger of splitting, as it had in 1972, when some members wanted Gray III to succeed his father as minister, but others preferred a different pastor.

For all his detractors, Johnson still has support from some congregants.

"I like the work he's doing in the church as far as showing concern for the community and fighting for the schools," said one woman, who asked that her name be withheld.

George Burrell, a former city official and longtime Bright Hope member, said he stepped down from the church's board of trustees in November because he began a new job. Burrell confirmed that some church members want an audit, but he said of Johnson: "I trust his honesty."

But how many Bright Hope members will agree with Burrell?

Will the minister, who cut short his first attempt at political office, find success in the campaign he's now waging to keep his clerical office?

Will Bright Hope find healing?

Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, said that turbulent splits are not uncommon in churches when it comes to whether ultimate control is in the hands of a pastor or the board of trustees.

"Everything depends on what the church rules say," she said. "Sometimes the pastor has hijacked the power and is running the show, no matter what the rules say."

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