The Theft of a Black Baptist Church in Gentrified Rip City: An Investigative Report (Part 2 of 5)

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Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Atticus Review introduced the first article in a five-part Atticus Uncovered series, “Swindled Church Nets White Baptists Big Bucks,” the story of the taking of Portland’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church. The investigative report continues today with a surprising development and runs through Friday.

Troy Smith to the Rescue?

PORTLAND, OREGON — Even in its best days, Mt. Zion careened from pillar to post, not enough people in the big building. An undated membership role written between 1987 and 1990 listed 33 members; in 1996, the roll totaled 57. It’s unknown how many of these attended regularly. The church so thin, Rev. Percy N. Manuel never made more than $12,000 a year as a full-time clergyman.

As the years passed and attendance dwindled, he cast about for solutions, coming upon, he thought, a life raft in the person of Troy L. Smith, a Southern Baptist Convention pastor and head of a much-travelled, drug-and-alcohol treatment ministry called S.A.F.E. Ministries. It stands for: Setting Addicts Free Eternally.

Manuel’s loyal few rattling around the building—when the balcony became unsafe, they just roped it off—and having trouble keeping the lights on, sometime in 1998 or 1999 (two of Smith’s followers were granted authority to sign Mt. Zion checks in May 1999), Manuel agreed to provide S.A.F.E. with a home. As ex-Interstate Baptist Association boss, J. K. Minton, put it, “Percy’s situation was so diminished, Troy and Percy partnered.”

Smith said he “co-pastored” with Manuel, and that he brought “15 to 20” men in his treatment program along with him. (When his group was booted out of Mt. Zion in March 2000, Smith took 34 people with him, the vast majority men.)

According to Doug Stone, Smith had previously housed his treatment ministry at four other locations. And an invoice that found its way to Mt. Zion’s files indicates a fifth. Well versed in settling in, he made himself at home—literally. He and his wife, Jamae, eventually lived in the parish house, Minton said. And tax records of companies that leased S.A.F.E. office equipment located the ministry at the parish house’s 9th Avenue address, as did a Baptist database.

Significantly, it was Smith who brought his followers, Sharon and Doug Stone, to Mt. Zion. Over the years, Sharon Stone worked for Smith as a secretary in his snowboard company, Troy Smith Snowboards, as well as assisting with S.A.F.E.

Despite Stone’s initial refusal in her driveway, Roy Granville, the charming retired insurance salesman, eventually obtained the church records from her. And, by happenstance, they contained a single Interstate Baptist Association directory, its “2002 – 03 Annual.”

I made numerous, futile attempts to obtain the 2003-04 Annual from the IBA, all eliciting no reply. Bill Sumners, Director of the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, kindly accessed the 2003-04 Annual for me and confirmed the three jobs Troy Smith held in 2004, as well as Bruce Sloan’s committee chairmanship the year Mt. Zion was taken.

According to the IBA’s own printed, yearly directories, during the years 2002-2004, Smith had a multi-faceted, salaried job paying $35,724 with the IBA. In addition to pastoring S.A.F.E. during those years, he was IBA’s “Director of Ministry Evangelism” and—Mt. Zion certainly an inner city church—“Director of Inner City Evangelism.” He also was a “Team Leader” of the “Revitalization” team.

Troy Smith

Troy L. Smith

My interview with Smith preceded obtaining the Annuals. Therefore, I could not confront him with their documentary evidence; he has since ducked several calls and threatened to call the cops on me for practicing journalism. There’s also the fact that his employee, Sharon Stone, was the person who set the wheels in motion to convey the church to the IBA.

Despite his IBA staff jobs and Stone’s role, Smith said, “I had nothing to do with the sale [sic]to Interstate.” He added, “I don’t know what happened after we left in 2001. Percy was alive then, and I was busy running S.A.F.E. and Troy Smith Snowboards.”

But, Smith an IBA staffer–its Director of Inner City Evangelism, plus Stone’s sometime boss–it strains belief to think he didn’t know that the IBA had just been (improperly) deeded a deteriorating, but still inherently valuable, inner-city church property. His plea of ignorance of the April 2004 property transfer doesn’t hold up.

Manuel and Smith eventually had a falling out, and Smith and his followers were asked to leave. But, said Doug Stone, the original, almost entirely African-American congregation was surprised to see that he and his wife kept attending Mt. Zion, though Sharon’s boss—Troy Smith—and the other S.A.F.E. folks had left.

Questions remain for both Troy Smith and IBA secretary Lila O’Banion. (See Monday’s article.) Attempting a second visit to the IBA office, I arrived late, after closing. As I sat in my car in the parking lot, someone drove past who asked me to identify myself. Doing so, and saying I was there trying to speak with Mrs. O’Banion, they recognized me by name as having previously been there, told me to leave her alone, and threatened to call the police.

I subsequently called Pastor Smith to attempt a follow-up to our phone interview about his brothers and sisters in Christ being dispossessed. He threatened to call the cops if I ever again showed up at the IBA. Then he told me to go back where I came from and hung up. A subsequent attempt to reach him through his daughter (see below) yielded no reply.

A Property Coveted for Years

Ex-IBA director, J. K. Minton points out that once a Portland church property loses its special-use zoning permit as a church, it’s difficult to regain. The city makes it tough because churches pay no taxes, Minton said. While working as IBA director, he was told by a city planner that gaining that special-use status for a new property would be almost impossible.

Speaking generally of SBC’s mission to plant new churches in America’s inner-cities, Troy Smith said, “There are no other properties coming up and no money for them.” However faded its grandeur, Mt. Zion was still a ripe plum given its size and central location. Said Northwest Baptist Convention (the umbrella group for SBC churches in Oregon, Washington and part of Idaho) Executive Director Randy Adams, “We traditionally don’t have much success in cities.”

So it’s not surprising that the IBA coveted Mt. Zion for years before finally obtaining it in 2004. Clipped to a January 2001 meeting agenda, the church files contain an undated, three-page proposal from Robin Butler, the IBA’s Executive Director from September 2000 to September 2003. He was slated to come to Mt. Zion in February 2001 to discuss a “multi-faceted and multi-ethnic ministry center to be called the ‘Percy and Benny [sic]Manuel Center.’ ” Since Mt. Zion would be no more, part of the center’s purpose would be to steer visitors to a different “local Southern Baptist church.”

Butler’s printed proposal added, “The property currently belonging to Mt. Zion Baptist Church would be deeded over to Interstate Baptist Association to be operated as an Associational-owned and operated ministry center.”

Significantly, though the IBA proposed to absorb an extant, functioning (African-American) SBC church, their plans precluded its continued operation. Rather, it proposed using the property for afternoon classes for latch-key kids; as a medical clinic for teenage mothers; for computer classes; or as a truck-stop ministry–though where the trucks would park was a mystery.

Butler said he had no role in the property’s eventual conveyance.

A view of Mt. Zion property some eight years after the congregation was forced out (photo: Evan Way)

A view of the Mt. Zion property some eight years after the congregation was forced out (photo: Evan Way)

The legal and financial arm of the NWBC, the super-sized version of the IBA, is the Northwest Baptist Foundation.

Following the IBA Executive Director year-long job vacancy, including the crucial months of February through April 2004 when the church was taken, Bruce Sloan replaced Butler in that position in September 2004 and held it until June 2009. Prior to that, he was chairman of a key IBA committee, the Budget/Finance/Stewardship Committee. Granted that perspective, he thought it likely that the NWBF provided legal counsel to the smaller IBA regarding the conveyance. Plus, O’Banion said the NWBF possessed the Mt. Zion conveyance file—though her statement may have been intended to fend off a reporter.

Appraised of Sloan and O’Banion’s assertions, NWBF legal counsel Clint Overall said that the NWBF “probably” talked to IBA about the transfer, but he had no record of it. (This was communicated to O’Banion, who said she’d look for the file if she found the time.) Overall did remember a phone call with Manuel about, he said, eventually transferring the church to IBA. “I spoke with Percy Manuel about this process,” Overall said.

Beyond “probably” providing legal counsel, Overall and his boss, NWBF President, Thomas R. Hixson worked hand-in-glove with the IBA. The IBA Annual lists Hixson as chairman of the IBA Loans & Trust Funds Committee. And Overall was chairman of the IBA Constitution Committee.

It was a David and Goliath affair, David embodied by a small group, mostly African-American women, worshipping together in a church that would soon hire its new pastor for the lordly sum of $6,000 a year. Mt. Zion’s income the year it lost its building: $29,669.12.

Goliath had an MBA at the helm in Hixson; Overall is a lawyer. The NWBF’s assets exceeded $20 million in 2001 and $25 million in 2005.

Akin to NWBF’s lack of records, it was a remarkable disappearing act all around. Lila O’Banion said little to a reporter, then refused to make the IBA file available. Many calls to the IBA went unreturned. Sharon Stone, the micro-manager, church records replete with her dominating affairs large and small, set the wheel spinning and then, so she said, bowed out of the property transfer, the most consequential matter possible.

Troy Smith professed his ignorance despite his paid IBA jobs. It’s worth noting that when the deed was finally picked up at the county office after being recorded almost two years after it was signed, the chore was performed by Steve Chapin, since deceased. Smith called him his “right-hand man.” Additionally, the IBA Annual lists Chapin as treasurer of its Budget/Finance/Stewardship Committee.

Smith’s one-time employee, Stone, who he brought to Mt. Zion, initiated the property transfer. Almost two years later, his “right-hand man” retrieved the deed.

It was a David and Goliath affair, David embodied by a small group of mostly African-American women worshipping together in a church, and Goliath embodied by an MBA at the helm, a lawyer, and $25 million in assets.

Greater Gresham Baptist Church ended up buying the property from the IBA for $200,000 in 2009. GGBC among the two or three largest SBC churches in Oregon, its lead pastor, Keith Evans, was president of the NWBC that year. Asked who was driving the train that led to the 2004 conveyance, Evans said, “I don’t know if anyone was driving. It just came about.”

O’Banion providing one signature, IBA’s Bruce Sloan also signed the 2009 deed selling Mt. Zion to Evans’ church for IBA’s $200,000 net gain. (This for an organization whose expenses totaled $247,135 in 2003.)

According to the IBA 2003-04 Annual, Sloan was chair of the IBA Budget/Finance/Stewardship Committee in April 2004 when the faulty deed was signed. Plus he became IBA boss five months later. Yet Sloan said, “I can’t recall who was making that decision regarding transferring Mt. Zion to Interstate.” Contemporaneous chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, yet no knowledge of how such an asset was obtained.

Maybe Folks in Arkansas Own Mt. Zion

Mt. Zion’s files provide another wrinkle. Smith and his treatment ministry were in full flower at a Mt. Zion business meeting on October 20, 1999. That is, solely on the two pastors’ say-so, Percy Manuel and Troy Smith agreed to merge their two churches, however immaterial Smith’s might have been.

Additionally, formal acknowledgement was made that day of Mt. Zion’s debt to its founding pastor. Consideration was to be given a year hence to paying $30,000 of the $57,000 Manuel said he was owed. $30,000 exceeding Mt. Zion’s annual budget, Manuel was put off for a year, the church to “review” the debt then and somehow “determine how it will be paid.” (This $30,000 figure would surface again in church documents.)

Manuel’s finances an intractable can kicked down the road, Manuel and Smith did agree, as the church minutes state, to institute the following:

     “1) the two churches agreed to join churches to form Mt. Zion Baptist Church;

      3) agreed to have African American pastor in the church (God’s man);

      4) Sharon Stone is now the Financial Secretary;

      8) Back salary is due Pastor Percy as some years ago Pastor Percy paid the church note when the church body at that time did not pay the church notes. The amount is approx $30,000 per Pastor Percy. (The actual amount determined by Pastor Percy and Sharon Stone is approximately $57,000, however Pastor Percy is not asking for full reimbursement); [Emphasis added.]

      9) Church will review debt owed Pastor Percy in 1 year to determine how it will be paid.”

Troy Smith participated as Manuel’s coequal instituting these changes. Note that in the nine points listed, only “Pastor Percy” and Stone (who worked for Smith over the years)—and who “motioned to table the acknowledgement of debt”—were the only people mentioned by name; Stone’s was also the only role here established.

His friend and stalwart supporter, Roy Granville, said, “Percy had no other job—he lived on nothing. The IBA would come in and be appalled at how little he was making.”

Casting an eye to the future, Manuel was to content himself in 1999 with the acknowledgement of his sacrifice. That was a step. Paid $12,000 annually for many years (up from $3,600 in 1990), should Mt. Zion’s fortunes ever dramatically improve, his penury might be recompensed.

(S.A.F.E and Mt. Zion’s merger lasted all of five months. In late March 2000, Smith and 34 of his followers, including Steven Chapin and Chapin’s wife, formally requested that their Mt. Zion membership be transferred to the Inner City Baptist Church somewhere in Portland.)

That Mt. Zion was tied to the Interstate Baptist Association from the start by a personal loan from its director doesn’t justify or excuse the association usurping its property 18 years later.

The 1999 meeting continued. Someone named “Danney Smith” conflated the names of two organizations and mistakenly moved, the minutes state, “to deed the church to Northwest Baptist Association as safeguard to avoid someone from coming into the church and getting the church to vote the sell the building property.”

That, of course, is exactly what, in subterraneous, roundabout fashion, happened in February 2004.

In any event, Danney Smith’s motion was approved. But, while the IBA is an association, and the NWBC is a convention, the only “Northwest Baptist Association” the Internet coughs up is an organization in Arkansas.

(Danielle Christeson, maiden name Smith, is Troy Smith’s daughter, and she followed him to Mt. Zion at that time. In a brief phone interview, she didn’t remember attending this 1999 business meeting. She also didn’t know any “Danney Smith,” but doubted the minutes of the meeting would refer to her as such. Having my phone number, she said she’d relay my request for a follow-up interview to her father—who’d already threatened to call the cops on a reporter—then she hung up.)

Any Arkansan demanding Mt. Zion’s keys should realize that this 1999 transfer of the property to an outfit some 1,600 miles away was never acted upon. Manuel apparently tossed it in a drawer somewhere, since no deed ceding Mt. Zion to anyone was filed until after his death. It’s unknown if pressure from Troy Smith to effectuate any transfer of the property was what led to his ouster from Mt. Zion five months later.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this 1999 meeting resulted in the church having just two trustees: Granville, the perennial trustee, and Paul Christeson, Troy Smith’s son-in-law.

The $30,000 (never mind the $57,000) referred to above consisted in large part of  Manuel’s claim to a living wage in years past rather than any mortgage payments he may have made. That’s because the property’s entire purchase price in December 1986, three weeks after Mt. Zion was incorporated, was $10,000.  Manuel a former storefront preacher on Portland’s Williams Avenue, the money was a private loan from the wallet of the then head of the IBA, Roy J. Johnson.

That it was a private loan is demonstrated by the fact that the deed refers to a “Promissory Note” obligating Mt. Zion to pay back the $10,000, plus interest, to Johnson or his estate. It’s a testament to 70-year-old Brother Percy’s already demonstrated accomplishments as a Kingdom man—as well as Johnson’s evangelical commitment—that Johnson reached into his own pocket. Church-planting his aim, he apparently wanted to see what Manuel could achieve in a real church building rather than a store.

A view of Mt. Zion property some eight years after the congregation was forced out. (photo: Evan Way)

A view of the Mt. Zion property some eight years after the congregation was forced out. (photo: Evan Way)

That Mt. Zion was tied to the IBA from the start by a personal loan from its director doesn’t justify or excuse the association usurping its property 18 years later.

With no deed executed as a result, the 1999 action (which the votes of Smith and his followers helped pass) became nothing but a moldering piece of paper in the church files. It joined other documents that mention redoing something—transferring the property—that supposedly had been achieved in 1999 but was never acted upon.

For instance, the agenda for a meeting 15-months later featured two items: “Putting the church property in the Association’s name.” This was followed by: “Written agreement of payment of back salary debt to Reverend Percy N. Manuel or his designated beneficiary”—presuming Bennie Manuel outlived her husband. More than once over the years these two thorny issues were conjoined; for instance, no solution regarding back salary having been plucked from the ether, they were repeated verbatim on the agenda for a meeting two-and-a-half years later in September 2003.

That the 1999 vote to transfer the church property carried no weight is indicated most tellingly by IBA head Butler’s February 2001 visit to discuss the property becoming an IBA ministry center.

Years passed, and though the founding pastor and his tiny flock at times barely kept afloat, Manuel clutched Mt. Zion tight rather than deed it to the IBA and see it become a clinic or computer center. (Not to mention that at his age—he died age 87 in 2004—closing the church would presumably end his ministry.) As discussed, Minton, the ex-IBA head, said Manuel embodied the church. He also said, “In an African-American Baptist church, the pastor has tremendous authority if he is the founder.”

Mt. Zion’s last sitting pastor, Will Warren, who had the church swept out from under his feet when he and his congregation were unceremoniously locked out, poses a pointed question: “If Percy wanted the church to go to the IBA, why didn’t he make it happen when he was alive?”

He didn’t, and then he died. Then “Interstate stole it from African-Americans and profited from it,” said Warren.

See tomorrow’s article: “Plundering the Corpse.”


Key People
(Listed alphabetically by last name; race indicated in parentheses as it is a prominent element of the story)

  • Dee Baker (Af-Am): former Mt. Zion member
  • Robin Butler (W): IBA Executive Director, September 2000 to September 2003
  • Keith Evans (W): Lead Pastor, Greater Gresham Baptist Church; former President, Northwest Baptist Convention
  • Phillip G. Faulk (race unknown): notary public
  • Pastor Donald T. Frazier (Af-Am): Senior Pastor, Genesis Community Fellowship, friend to Percy Manuel, mentor to Will Warren
  • Roy L. Granville Jr. (Af-Am): Mt. Zion founding trustee and stalwart supporter
  • Robert Hill (Af-Am): former Mt. Zion trustee
  • Roy J. Johnson (W): IBA Executive Director in the 1980s
  • Theresa D. Lassise (W): an improperly elected Mt. Zion trustee
  • Bennie L. Manuel (Af-Am): Percy’s widow and improperly elected Mt. Zion trustee
  • Pastor Percy N. Manuel (Af-Am.): founder of Mt. Zion Baptist Church
  • Dr. J. K. Minton (W): IBA Executive Director 1994 to 1998
  • Lila O’Banion (W): IBA secretary
  • Clint Overall (W): Northwest Baptist Foundation Legal Counsel
  • Ellen F. Rosenblum (W): Oregon State Attorney General
  • Bruce Sloan (W): IBA Executive Director, September 2004 to June 2009
  • Troy L. Smith (W): SBC pastor, IBA official and head of S.A.F.E. alcohol and drug treatment ministry; Sharon Stone’s sometime employer
  • Doug Stone (W): Sharon Stone’s husband, former Mt. Zion member
  • Sharon Stone (W): holder of numerous posts, Mt. Zion; former employee of Troy L. Smith
  • Will Warren (Af-Am): Mt. Zion’s last sitting pastor

Key Organizations

  • Interstate Baptist Association: a 70-church, metro-Portland affiliate of the SBC
  • Living Hope: Washington State-based mega-church
  • Northwest Baptist Convention: a 460-church umbrella organization for SBC churches in Oregon, Washington and parts of Idaho
  • Northwest Baptist Foundation: the NWBC’s legal and financial arm
  • Southern Baptist Convention: largely white, America’s largest Protestant denomination

 

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About Author

Daniel Forbes embarrassed the White House with his published revelation that it paid millions to the TV networks to rewrite their scripts; he subsequently testified before the House and Senate. His journalism has won awards from Columbia University, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Drug Policy Alliance. His novel, Derail this Train Wreck (2015, Fomite Press), was sparked by an NYPD assault and his successful free-speech lawsuit against Lincoln Center and the cops.

1 Comment

  1. Jennifer Waldrep on

    The handful of people I know from your article would recoil at the thought of dispossessing a struggling, Black sister church of her building, but step by well-meaning, short-sighted step, we went from A to B to C and now you grasp us by the shoulders and say: Behold what you have done! I am part of a Peruvian Baptist church that wants to reach out to drug addicts and when I think of someone devoted to a city’s untouchables, I think of Troy Smith, who I met decades ago in North Portland. Few employers hire addicts—especially ex-cons. It doesn’t surprise me that Troy Smith opened a business…he takes chances on people others shun. But I was stunned to search his name (looking for resources) and find your article, with some familiar names and spotlighting what Portland area Baptists, with a heart to minister to a dynamic community, missed: a flagrant offense against our own brothers in Christ. If the Bible teaches us anything, it is that God is a God of justice and mercy, and of reconciliation. He loves us all too much to let our sins—willful or unintentional, individual or corporate—go unchecked. In His excruciating mercy, He sent you to speak up. It is hard to recognize early-stage gentrification within one’s own context. Neighborhoods perpetually shift and the tension between Christ-followers who want to continue an established ministry focus and those who want outreach to correspond to emerging demographics is ever-present. Sick social systems seem hopeless until we face our own enmeshment therein and step toward reconciliation. It was for this Christ gave His life–that we may be reconciled to God and each other.
    In 2000, I took a multiculturalism class through the seminary that serves Northwest Baptists. Your article should be revamped as a case study for SBC servant-leaders, both present and future; for “a single rebuke does more for a person of understanding than a hundred lashes on the back of a fool (Proverbs 17:10 NLT).”

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