Worst of all, the congregation’s leaders have had to spend the past three years unwinding an $850,000 embezzlement scam that drained National City’s budget and forced the church to cut back on its ministry and staff.
Some members left the congregation, and others spoke of closing the church’s doors. But a core group refused to quit. Whether it was fixing choir chairs, answering phones, cleaning the sanctuary or pulling weeds and planting flowers on church grounds, dozens of congregants banded together. In some ways, the fallout from the scam has made National City stronger.
“These last few years have been extremely difficult,” Gentle said. “But we have seen the congregation come together like we have not seen in a long, long time.”
National City, the nearly 170-year-old flagship congregation of the 660,000-member Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), routinely drew 800 people to worship on Sundays in the 1950s and 1960s. President James A. Garfield preached from its pulpit, and President Lyndon B. Johnson regularly attended services.But at a recent Sunday service at the majestic church on Thomas Circle, about 125 worshipers, many of them retirees, sat scattered among 62 pews.
The scam only exacerbated National City’s problems. It came just a few years after the congregation was embarrassed by news that its pastor, the Rev. Alvin O’Neil Jackson, had plagiarized sermons delivered by another minister. Jackson left the church and was replaced in early 2006 by Gentle, a soft-spoken pastor of a Florida church. Gentle’s mission, as many members saw it, was to help heal the reeling church.
For a few years, Gentle made progress. But the church was tested again in 2008, when its leaders found discrepancies in financial records. At first, they thought their chief financial officer, Jason T. Reynolds, was simply a bad bookkeeper. Then they realized Reynolds had stolen about $850,000 in church money to buy cars, flat-screen TVs and jewels.
At one point, Reynolds gave Gentle and his sixth-grade son two tickets to a Washington Wizards game. Gentle realized later that Reynolds’s tickets had been financed by his church.
“I was literally sick to my stomach when I realized that,” said Gentle, 51, who would testify at Reynolds’s trial. In August, Reynolds was convicted of 12 fraud-related charges, and Gentle wrote a letter to the federal judge on the eve of sentencing that described the “pain, distrust and financial hardship” that had been inflicted on his church. On Nov. 9, Reynolds was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.