The Theft of a Black Baptist Church in Gentrified Rip City: An Investigative Report (Part 3 of 5)

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Editor’s Note: This week, Atticus Review unveils the story of the unauthorized taking of Portland’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church with three articles: “Swindled Church Nets White Baptists Big Bucks” (Part 1), “Troy Smith to the Rescue?” (Part 2) and Plundering the Corpse (Part 3), plus two sidebars: “Recompense for the Dispossessed?” (Part 4), and “A Success Story with Stealth Issues of its Own” (Part 5). Today, investigative reporter Daniel Forbes examines the “human cost” and circumstances behind the unlawful church sale, while tomorrow he considers recourse for the Mt. Zion congregation. The series wraps up on Friday with a parting look at the property’s current tenant, Door of Hope.

Plundering the Corpse

Long-time trustee Roy Granville did more than anyone but Pastor Percy Manuel to keep the doors open at Portland’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church. “Half the time there was a special collection to keep the lights on. A lot of money came out of Roy’s pocket,” said fellow trustee, Robert Hill. So why did Granville sign the botched deed conveying the church to the Interstate Baptist Association?

Driving back from having failed to liberate the church files from Sharon Stone’s garage, his pastor, Will Warren pleaded with Granville: “Why did you then turn around after all those years of working so hard, and give the church away for nothing? For not even one dollar, Roy?”

And no matter how many times he was asked, Granville offered little beyond ritualistic denunciations of the “Lucifers” who’d somehow spirited his church away.

In a half-dozen meetings over the course of weeks, though Granville is in full possession of his faculties, a reporter couldn’t learn even where the signing took place. Shown the deed yet again with the signature he acknowledged as his, he’d say, “I wish I could have an explanation. I cannot believe this…. Oh boy! I just can’t believe it.” And then he’d call down further imprecation upon the Baptists, his coreligionists.

The most logical explanation is he did it out of loyalty to the man—and his widow—rather than to the church that man founded. With Manuel dead and church-mouse-poor Bennie Manuel, age 96, wondering where she’d get the few hundred dollars to pay her quarterly property taxes, both the church files and my interviews yield talk of an implicit quid pro quo. It’s not by chance that documents spatially tie compensating Manuel or his heir with transferring the property to the Interstate Baptists Association.

Granville said, “Percy said ‘If I pass on, those monies should be given to Bennie [Manuel] if Will [Warren] gets the church going or if IBA gives any money.’ ”

The files contain an undated, handwritten note preceding Manuel’s death about paying $30,000 for “monies rendered” to the church, the money to go to Bennie “in the event of his death.”

Former Mt. Zion trustee Robert Hill learned years later of Granville signing the deed. “Roy maybe did it for Bennie,” he said. “No one did anything for Bennie. She had no pension. They kept saying Bennie is not being taken care of.”

And indeed, though the IBA secretly took possession in 2004, Manuel’s widow was not taken care of. This despite the stated linking of the issues, the fairly explicit quid pro quo. According to minutes of an April 2005 meeting, a year after the property transfer: “Concerns were raised regarding Sis. Manuel’s property tax issues and other monthly financial obligations.” The group decided to have Warren check in on her, and also that someone should contact the IBA for assistance. They also “decided to pray for direction regard[ing]other financial issues before taking further steps to intervene.”

Bennie Manuel

Bennie Manuel

As per usual, the Manuels, the ultimate unsecured creditors, took a back seat. A month later, Warren reported that Mother Manuel’s immediate crisis had been averted. So the “Leadership Team” decided to discuss it still later, after Warren consulted with Sharon Stone, since “she has already researched this.”

Fear of Karaoke

It was known that Percy Manuel had repaid at least some of Roy Johnson’s 1986 loan to buy the church out of his own quite meager funds. Given that, there was some confusion after his death about whether he personally might have owned the church property, and that his four children (two sons preceded their father in death) might end up tearing Mt. Zion apart, fighting over their ‘inheritance’ and frittering it away in an internecine probate struggle. That, or sell the place to become a karaoke bar or row of townhouses. Similar fates have befallen other Portland churches.

No one thought to go down to the county office and ferret out a copy of the deed.

Warren was hoping Mt. Zion would heed his mid-career call to ministry. (He’d been a deacon for Pastor Donald Frazier at another church, who noted that African-Americans get the call to preach and then go to seminary. With whites, it’s the reverse.)

Warren said that “Some weeks after Percy’s death”—that is, while moves were being made to transfer Mt. Zion to the IBA—“after church, Roy and Doug and Sharon invited me into the parish house” to tell him they were worried about the Manuel children somehow seizing the church. Worried about them taking it and selling it.

That is, Roy Granville, the Manuel loyalist who signed the deed, and Sharon Stone—who Hill likened to the “president” of the church, and apparent catalyst to the property transfer with her phone call to IBA secretary Lila O’Banion—plus Sharon’s husband, Doug.

Sharon did the talking, Warren said. They wanted Mt. Zion to do a maneuver as a ‘safeguard’ against the children selling the property. It was the same rationale—a safeguard—that was used to justify the failed attempt to deed the church away in 1999.

With Sharon leading, Granville and the white couple from across the Willamette River presented it to Warren that Manuel owned the church and so, to protect it as a house of God, they needed to ‘sell’ it to IBA for $1.00 to hold for a year. And after Warren was ordained later that year, IBA would convey it back.

A somewhat self-effacing man, Warren deferred to Granville, Percy’s rock who’d been there from the beginning, and to the very assertive Sharon Stone. As a yet to be ordained, interim pastor hoping for promotion to lead pastor, he didn’t feel he could throw his weight around. His wife, Lori Warren, notes that her husband is conflict adverse, something a reporter witnessed during the argument with the Stones in their driveway.

Lori Warren said there was, “a pretense of fear of the Manuel family trying to take the church.” She added, “Will’s experience in these matters was limited. He was taking advice from Sharon and Bennie and Roy…. They’d been there a long time.” Robert Hill confirmed that Warren thought that Manuel had owned the church.

Warren said, “I’m new. It’s like a fire hose in the face, all the maneuvering. They’ve been running it. I thought it was in Percy’s name. They said it belonged to Percy.”

Active in church affairs, Lori Warren figured something was up with the property, but it would be made right once her husband was ordained. (Ordained in October 2004, Warren was called as Mt. Zion’s bi-vocational pastor that November. The salary a mere $6,000 a year, the man was driven to preach the Gospel, to pastor, to serve.)

As to sheltering the property temporarily at the IBA, the files contain blank copies of a deed, typed up but not filled out, with Mt. Zion granting the property to IBA. There are also blank copies of the flip side of the coin: IBA as the seller, Mt. Zion as the recipient.

The first of these deeds was eventually signed in secret by Granville and Bennie Manuel and recorded with the county after a 22-month delay. But the deed sending the property from the IBA back to Mt. Zion for the same “$0.00” was never used. Instead, the IBA executed a deed selling it for $200,000 to Greater Gresham Baptist Church.

The Interstate Baptist Association secretly took possession of Mt. Zion Baptist Church for $0.00 in 2004 and recorded the deed 22 months later with Multnomah County before selling the property for $200,000 to Greater Gresham Baptist Church.

Bennie Manuel’s health did not permit an interview. But I have interviewed some dozen bitter former Mt. Zion members, African-Americans (with the exception of Lori Warren) who decry the whole affair as emblematic of the economic dislocation of so many black folks from North and Northeast Portland in the past decade. They all once lived within shouting distance of the church. Now only two do so, the rest scattered far. Though losing your home is worse, losing your church ranks right up there—a church that was making strides as Warren found his feet as a pastor.

These folks’ heartache might have been avoided had, first off, things not proceeded in such slippery fashion and, secondly, had the church the money for a lawyer. For any competent attorney would have exploded the canard about the supposed threat presented by Manuel’s supposedly avaricious children.

Marisa Meltebeke, an associate at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, said that Manuel’s children had no claim. At most, if their father had loaned money to the church—rather than bestowing it as a gift to help pay back Roy Johnson’s loan, say—they’d be creditors. “But there was no ownership claim.” Meltebeke added, “A non-profit, there are no equity holders…. No one owns a non-profit, it owns itself.”

Always More to Take

Despite the continued financial challenges and any buried doubts about who actually owned the building, things began to improve some under Warren. His cousin, church member Dee Baker, said things were looking up, with an energetic, young(ish) pastor. They’d painted the church, held a gospel concert and events in Irving Park, and conducted a spiritual enrichment series called “Walk on Water.” She added, “Will was a good preacher—a storyteller who was passionate and full of emotion…. My two years at Mt. Zion were the richest religious experience in a lifetime of church-going.”

Hill said, “Will came in strong. He tried to carry on with what Rev. Manuel wanted. I loved his preaching.”

Pastor Will Warren

Pastor Will Warren

In August 2004, deposits exceeded $7,000, a substantial sum by Mt. Zion standards. And in the fall of 2005, after paying its bills, the church had closing balances of around $8,000 in September and almost $9,000 in October. Warren’s bivocational (i.e., he was expected to have another job, which he did, a demanding one at that) “housing allowance” skyrocketed from $6,000 a year to $12,000 in 2005.

Matters improving, apparently simply misappropriating the property was not enough. At a January 2005 business meeting, facilitated by her husband, Doug, and by Theresa Lassise, Stone engineered a vote to increase Mt. Zion’s separate contributions—dues, in effect—to both the larger Northwest Baptist Convention and the IBA from the stated target of 5% to 7% each of general funds.

In 2003, Manuel’s last year in charge, the amount contributed to both groups was $313 each—or just over 1% of revenue. And, though the increase from the ostensible goal of 5% to 7% wasn’t authorized until 2005, there was a huge boost the year before, in 2004. Manuel died in January 2004, and Stone assumed the lion’s share of control. And in 2004, both the IBA and the NWBC got $2,792 each or $5,584 total.

The dual contributions to the SBC umbrella groups–the larger of which, the NWBC, had assets under its roof of $25-million the following year–jumped from $626 under Manuel to $5,584 in the first year of ‘new management.’ This from a church whose income barely budged, a church that was falling down around members’ ears.

So, rather than the 10% of revenue Mt. Zion’s members had agreed to pay (that is, 5% for each SBC organization), the amount totaled more than 18% percent of Mt. Zion’s 2004 income of $29,669.

In 2005’s projected budget, despite the stated 14% cap (7% for the IBA, 7% for the NWBC), the dual contributions were bumped up a notch to $5,800, or about 16.5% of the year’s projected income of $35,000. That was almost half of what they’d pay their pastor.

Recall Hill and Baker’s characterizations of Stone’s command of church affairs. As Hill said, “Sharon had a very tight rein on the church books and property.” Additionally, Will Warren’s sister, Mt. Zion member Regina Warren, said, “Sharon was controlling everything…. She was closed-mouthed and didn’t like being asked questions.”

The church was plundered from within, but also externally. That is, Mt. Zion received a $15,043 furnace loan from NWBC’s legal and financial arm, the Northwest Baptist Foundation in 1998. (The foundation loans a mere 2% of its assets to member churches annually.) And from May 2004—that is, following the property transfer—till March 2005, Mt. Zion paid down the final $2,038. So how, in good conscience, did the NWBF continue to cash the beleaguered church’s $185 checks, month after month, depositing them in its account in the First Independent Bank in Vancouver?

As discussed previously, NWBF in-house counsel, Clint Overall said he “probably” advised the IBA on the April 2004 conveyance; ex-IBA boss, Bruce Sloan, thought it likely. So how could a $25-million organization whose constitution declares its sole purpose is to help member churches “to carry out the Great Commission of Christ” take money for 11 months from a church with projected income that year of $35,000? How cash those checks when it knew or should have known that Mt. Zion no longer owned the building, let alone the furnace in the basement?

Things got pretty brazen. In November 2006, Mt Zion formally applied to the NWBF for a $45,000(!) loan to repair the leaky roof and resulting interior damage. The loan application—for a building the church did not own—was signed by Sharon Stone. This though she had called Lila O’Bannion two years before and told her to deliver the church to the IBA.

Something had to be done, for as Warren reports, “It started raining in the building.” What’s more, water damage had led to part of the wall collapsing. Years earlier, the church minutes noted hopefully that the pre-collapse “spread of wall & balcony [is]not a structural issue.” (Keith Evan said it was ‘raining’ in the church the day he came for his first look-see, maybe one reason GGBC got it for only $200,000.) Warren added, “It was hot in the summer and freezing in the winter – the heat bill was killing us.”

Heating the church budgeted at $3,500 in 2005, they cancelled Wednesday evening bible study and Sunday evening services during the winter at various times due to the expense.

Attendance had improved, but plateaued at something under forty adults a Sunday. Ambitious and worn-out both, Warren encountered a salesman dropping by the church who told him about Living Hope, a Washington-based, evangelical mega-church he attended. Intrigued by what he saw as Living Hope’s “multi-cultural vision”—as well as its evident financial resources—Warren said he and Lori prayed over it, then took it to the leadership and then to the church as a whole. They all agreed to explore a merger.

Warren, who focused on pastoral matters, assumed if the Mt. Zion property had ever been parked temporarily at the IBA as a safeguard, that it had been transferred back. After all, he reasoned, why else would  they be repaying the furnace loan all those months, not to mention the $1,800 they spent in May 2006 on new locks and a security door. (Break-ins had been a problem for years.) But he had left such matters to Stone and Granville, who were pretty much handling Mt. Zion’s business affairs.

As 2006 drew to a close and the flirtation with Living Hope turned more serious, Stone informed Warren that they couldn’t put the church property on the table in any merger discussion—that Mt. Zion didn’t own the property. The church didn’t own itself. It had been a ghost-church of sorts for well over two years.

The whole affair is emblematic of the economic dislocation of so many black folks from North and Northeast Portland in the past decade.

Genesis Community Fellowship pastor, Donald Frazier, who’d enjoyed his stints as guest-preacher at Mt. Zion, said, “Interstate was apparently not honest. It’s not proper. I’m disturbed that Interstate didn’t want to work with Will [Warren], who was the sitting pastor.”

Shocked and dismayed, Warren had lunch with the IBA’s Bruce Sloan to ask for his church back. According to Warren, “Bruce Sloan said no, we were not getting it back to merge with a non-SBC church.” Non-confrontational even in this, Warren said he told Sloan, “I’m not going to fight in God’s sphere. I won’t fight about God’s business.”

Said Frazier, “The Southern Baptists will never release [a building]to any denomination but their own.”

Troy Smith, who is listed as IBA president according to its current filing with the Oregon Secretary of State, claimed that money from his alcohol and drug-treatment ministry, S.A.F.E., helped with the church’s upkeep. He said, “A lot of Southern Baptist money went into that property. People invested in it so it would be Southern Baptist.”

Unraptured?

It happened quickly. Dee Baker said that John Bishop, Living Hope’s lead pastor, came to Mt. Zion to make a presentation. “And within two weeks, we were locked out,” she said. It was a Sunday, and no one knew at first what had happened. Baker said she went all around, to all the doors, but no. “For some reason we had to leave the building.”

No other options at hand, the members threw their lot in with Living Hope. Baker said they went to a rented room in the Convention Center for services with Living Hope. “It didn’t take,” she said. “There was nowhere to park, and it was a long walk for the older folks. It just wasn’t rewarding.” They ended up for a time in a church in Laurelhurst that operated as a Living Hope satellite. But for her part, Baker said “I wasn’t getting spiritually fed under Living Hope.”

Robert Hill said Living Hope sold them a bill of goods. “They told us that Will was going to preach every other Sunday.”

Granville echoed that: “Pastor Bishop came to our church and said that Will would preach once or twice a month. We kept waiting for Will to preach, but it didn’t happen.”

Warren would lead the service in snatches, but Hill doesn’t recall a full sermon. It’s doubtful that Warren’s bible exegesis would have blended well with Living Hope’s theology-lite services, its drums loud behind a plexiglass screen.

As to Living Hope, Pastor Frazier said, “They find smaller churches and gobble them up, and the pastors get promised things they never receive.”

Eventually, Warren’s role was further diminished, and he ended up resigning from Living Hope. He and Roy Granville tried to keep things going somehow, meeting for bible-study sessions at local fast food joints, but that didn’t last long.

Warren has thrown himself into his secular job, which is of service to the community and—a former college basketball player—he also coaches girl’s high school basketball. In addition, he’s the founder and driving force behind a program, I’m Hooked, Inc., that takes hundreds of kids fishing at a local lake every year.

Careful, coded language aside, gentrification has swept like a scythe through North and Northeast Portland. There’s anger and bitterness over a community decimated far beyond the loss of a single church.

No one sent in the nominal fee to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office to continue Mt. Zion’s status as a charitable corporation. It was declared late in that regard in November 2007, and it suffered an administrative dissolution in January 2008, some 22 years after its founding and four years after the death of its founder, Pastor Percy N. Manuel.

Speaking of 9th and NE Fremont, ex-IBA head Bruce Sloan said, “It wasn’t exactly a prime area back in 2004—not vibrant.” Careful, coded language aside, gentrification has swept like a scythe through North and Northeast Portland. There’s anger and bitterness over a community decimated far beyond the loss of a single church. And the black folks who remain are older, for the most part, benefiting from having paid off big chunks of mortgage. Young families—the lifeblood of any church—are typically unable to afford the area if they’re black.

Ex-IBA boss J. K. Minton said, “The community changed so much, it needed to happen what happened to reach a new clientele.” He added, “When a church stops reflecting its community, it’s in the process of dying.… You have to reflect your community or close your doors.”

Perhaps. But it should not have happened the way it did.

“It was Percy’s hope and desire to have Mt. Zion stay in the [black]community,” Frazier said. Hill concurs: “He wanted to see his area—black folks—fill the church.”

Full though the church is under its new tenant, Door of Hope, there’s barely a black face in the crowd. At the 11:30 a.m. gathering last Sunday, of the approximately 500 people present, a close look-see yielded just two people of color. (See Friday’s article: “A Success Story with Stealth Issues of its Own.”)

Scouting out the property, Keith Evans reports an eerie first visit to Mt. Zion. “It was like they just got up and walked out. Someone’s glasses were still sitting on a table … and there was a nice Bible still left on the pulpit.” Not entirely joking, Evans said, “We wondered if the Rapture came, and we weren’t taken.”

A nice potential irony, that. But eschatology beyond the scope of this article, what is known is that folks’ church got taken, and then they got locked out.

See tomorrow’s article: “Recompense for the Dispossessed?”


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.

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