Jericho City of Praise leaders file dueling lawsuits over control of Md. megachurch
By Hamil R. Harris,
The Rev. Joel R. Peebles stood at the base of the pulpit after preaching his usual rousing sermon at the 11 a.m. service at Jericho City of Praise in Landover, and it was time for the tithers’ march.
As about 800 members paraded across the baby blue carpet to the front of the sanctuary to drop their weekly tithes and offerings into four baskets, Peebles’s nephew, Joshua, moved up an aisle. For months, the two men had been at odds over control of the ministry.
The pastor’s security team sensed trouble and quickly stepped in to block Joshua’s path. A shoving match followed, and security escorted Joshua out of the sanctuary, according to witnesses.
The confrontation July 3 was the culmination of tension that began after the October death of Joel Peebles’s mother, Betty, the founder and longtime pastor at the church, one of the nation’s largest megachurches, with at least 15,000 members and millions of dollars in assets. She put her son in charge of the congregation, but in dispute is whether she directed the church’s board of trustees to oversee the church’s valuable assets. Joshua Peebles, 28,who lived with his grandmother before her death, has sided with the board, furthering the tension.
The pushing and shoving underscores the escalating battle that has divided Jericho and split one of the county’s most prominent families, whose matriarch in 2004 was the only woman leading any of the country’s largest churches.
The church’s governing board went to court Friday to try to stop Joel Peebles, 41, Betty Peebles’s only surviving child, from handling the congregation’s money. But because the judge has not yet made a decision, there is concern about what might happen Sunday.
Both sides agree that the courts will ultimately decide control. On Friday afternoon, they filed dueling petitions in court. The dispute centers on control of the church, with Joel Peebles challenging the authority of the board and the board (with the support of Joshua Peebles, whose deceased father was Betty Peebles’s oldest son) claiming that Joel Peebles had been mishandling church funds.
The makeup of the board is unclear, but Joel Peebles’s challenge focuses on four members: longtime church administrator Denise Killen, facilities manager Clarence Jackson, chief financial officer Dorothy Williams and Clifford Boswell, whose role is not specified in court documents.
“This is an attempted hostile takeover of the ministry by four church employees,” said Timothy F. Maloney, the attorney representing Joel Peebles. “They were never lawfully elected and met in secret for 18 months. They have mismanaged the finances and voted salary increases for four of the directors, including one who admits performing no duties.”“
According to court records, Jackson makes more than $91,000 a year; Williams,$83,000; Killen, $70,000; and Boswell, $200 bi-weekly.
But the board’s petition requesting a temporary restraining order — the second such request since Betty Peebles’s death — paints a very different picture.
Isaac Marks, the attorney representing the board, said he is seeking to prevent Joel Peebles and his representatives “from using others in the church to intimidate people collecting the tithes and offering.”
The board’s petition claims the trustees “operate under the threat of physical harm if they attempt to collect the tithes and offerings during church service.” It accuses Joel Peebles and others who have sided with him of seizing offerings from the 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. services on June 26 and refusing to give them to the church’s treasurer or finance team.
During the 8 a.m. service July 3 , Joel Peebles was surrounded by bodyguards and directed church members to give their tithes and offerings only to him, the petition claims. That prompted the confrontation at the 11 a.m. service.
Peebles declined to comment on the confrontation and the court proceeding.
“I need to protect my nephew. I need to protect my family,” Peebles said in an interview before the court documents were filed.
He preferred to talk about a concert planned for Sunday at the church. Billed as the “Forgive and Live Campaign,” the event has advertised the appearance of several nationally known gospel artists, including CeCe Winans.
In its petition, the board asked the court to block the concert, claiming that Peebles has no authority to use the church facilities.
The splintered family and church leadership have moved far from the unified front displayed when thousands came from across the country for Betty Peebles’s funeral after she died of cancer Oct. 12. The county’s and state’s most powerful politicians were there, praising Peebles as a visionary and a compassionate soul who uplifted the county.
Betty Peebles, a popular gospel singer, first started the ministry with her husband, Bishop James R. Peebles Sr., in 1964 in a D.C. basement. They later built a cinder-block church with seating for 35 members in Washington’s Kenilworth neighborhood.
When her husband died in 1996, Betty Peebles led the ministry’s transformation from an urban community church to a sprawling suburban campus that includes a plush $36 million sanctuary and school. The church also owns a $9 million office park and more than 125 acres, including several parking lots leased to the Washington Redskins during home games — all in the shadow of FedEx Field. Last year, the church opened Jericho Residences, a $52 million independent-living facility for seniors.
Just days after Betty Peebles’s death, things began to unravel. Joel Peebles, who has led the church since his mother died, was in a Prince George’s court, squaring off against the board, which filed the first petition for a temporary restraining order. A judge — describing the case as “a train running down the track and over a cliff if someone doesn’t make a decision” — denied the temporary injunction and ordered the board’s request for a permanent injunction to be heard in the spring. The case is pending.
On May 31, Joel Peebles filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of a will allegedly filed by his mother on Nov. 13, 2009. In the filing, Maloney asked the judge to declare the will null and void because Peebles was suffering from “physical and mental illness” and “was not of sound mind and not able execute a valid deed or contract.” The suit alleges fraud and claims she was under undue influence.
In response to Maloney’s charge that the board and will are not valid, Marks, the board’s attorney, said: “The Board of Trustees is the board Apostle Peebles put in place in March 2009. It is unfortunate that her mental competence and integrity are now being challenged in an effort to override her efforts.”