Divided megachurch members attend two services amid battle for control

April 22, 2012

Members of a divided Jericho City of Praise attended services at two locations on Sunday, the first time members of the church worshipped formally since Joel R. Peebles, the acting pastor and son of the church’s founders, was ousted and stripped of his membership last week.

About 300 members attended two somewhat subdued services in the megachurch’s Landover sanctuary, while a crowd of more than 3,000 crammed into a New Carrollton hotel to cheer and shout as Peebles discussed the “hurt” he had suffered. But Peebles also urged the throngs of followers to forgive those who have hurt them.

“Everyone has something going on,” Peebles said. “Everybody is dealing with something that had it not been for the grace of God they would have lost their minds. How do you handle it when those you have loved have turned their backs? How do you handle it when someone you trusted hurts your heart? . . . God says, ‘It is my posture that in the middle of the worst pain, you forgive them.’ ”

Sunday’s separate services were the latest development in a battle that erupted at Jericho soon after the death of its co-founder Betty Peebles in October 2010, tearing apart one of the wealthiest and most influential ministries in the Washington region, and leaving its future uncertain. Although Joel Peebles has preached at the church since his mother’s death, he and the board of trustees she appointed have been embroiled in a court battle over control of the church.

The board fired Peebles last week, claiming he was operating in a way that might compromise the church’s tax-
exempt status. Peebles and his supporters question the board’s financial accountability.

After his ouster, Peebles arranged for a Sunday service with his followers at the Metro Points Hotel on Annapolis Road. The makeshift church in a hotel ballroom contrasted starkly with the lavish church where Peebles preached for years by his mother’s side.

Despite sitting on folding chairs and huddling in overflow spaces, members at the service were jubilant. Liturgical dancers waved banners, a band roused the crowd with rollicking rhythms as they shouted and stomped to Peebles’s requests for “praise offerings.”

“Even though it was hot and a lot of people were standing, it was the best service we’ve had in a long time because of everything we’ve been through,” said Tiffany Alston, a lawyer and Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates who attends the church. “People were so happy to have a service that wasn’t full of all that tension.”

The 8 a.m. service at Jericho was a much quieter affair. About 200 people were scattered across a sanctuary built for 10,000. The service was led by Bishop Rodney Walker, who, before becoming pastor of Heritage Church International in Waldorf and the founding bishop of Another Touch of Glory Covenant Ministries, served as a minister in training under Betty Peebles and her husband, the late Bishop James R. Peebles.

“Don’t be alarmed by the number of people you see around you or the number of people you don’t see,” Walker said. “Every Sunday you will see more and more people pouring in here and pouring into the spirit of God. People may come and people may go, but the love of God will never fail.”

Many who attended were longtime members, including Jonas Mensah, 82, a deacon who said he plans to stay put. “I have been with this church since Douglas Street. Why should I leave now?” he said, referring to the church’s original location decades ago in the District.

As he walked into the 10 a.m. service, with about 100 others, Tyrone Warner, a minister, said he supported the board of trustees and also plans to stay. “My hope is that the vision of Apostle Betty Peebles will be followed,” Warner said.

The day started with a prayer vigil held outside the church attended mostly by supporters of Joel Peebles. One member showed off a letter announcing that she and her husband had been removed from Jericho’s rolls. Friday, four members who had been notified of their ouster by letters from the board unsuccessfully sought a temporary restraining order to block their ouster, according to a spokeswoman for Peebles.

Among those removed from the congregation was Bobby Henry, a lawyer who served as an assistant to Betty Peebles and remains close to Joel Peebles. Additional members were ousted over the weekend, Joel Peebles said Sunday.

“How do you kick people out of a church anyway?” Henry said. “This is very disappointing, to know that there are those who would seek to prevent anybody from coming to a house of God.”

During his sermon, Peebles thanked more than a dozen local and national ministers for standing by him. Peebles introduced his wife, Ylawnda, and their four children, along with the widows of his two brothers and several of their children.

It is unclear what will happen now that Peebles had been removed from Jericho. He told members Sunday that several ministry events would take place at the hotel this week.

“Are you ready to change the world?” Peebles asked his followers to thunderous applause. “Are you ready to make an impact on the world . . . and leave the devil behind?”

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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