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Revolt Simmers at Church
Race and Catholic Hierarchy Inflame Dispute in D.C. Parish

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006; A01

The order from the archdiocese had been clear: Stop the accusations, the name-calling, the disobedience to the authority of the Catholic Church.

But parishioner Bill Alston, bundled against the cold outside a church, didn't care as he passed out fliers alleging to his fellow Catholics that a leader at his nearby home congregation, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Anacostia, was "disrespectful, insulting and profane" and that the diocese was sweeping it under the rug.

The Rev. Michael Jones poked half of his body out the front door and shook his head disapprovingly. "Shame, shame, shame," he said. "You were told to cease and desist."

"So, everything the bishop says is right?" Alston asked.

"Yes," the priest said. "That's what happens in the Catholic Church . . . . It's not a Baptist church. You obey the priest and the bishop."

"I don't think so," Alston said, turning away to hand out another flier.

The unusual public confrontation last month between priest and parishioner was one more point of friction in a year-long dispute -- Alston calls it a crusade -- in which a cadre of longtime members at Our Lady, one of Washington's historically black Catholic congregations, is in mutiny against the white pastor.

Those members contend that the Rev. Donald Fest has ruled by fiat and has refused to confer about decisions or seek compromise. They don't like the administrator he put in charge, and they don't like the new rules on using the church hall, the famous Panorama Room.

The year has featured shouting matches, a pre-Mass picket line, accusations that Fest is a racist and a petition drive to oust the administrator. A church meeting this month became so heated that one member filed a stay-away order in D.C. Superior Court, accusing Alston of threatening her, an accusation Alston denies.

Fest said he has talked to critics, heard their concerns and has the authority he has been given. He suspended 17 people, including Alston, from usher and church duties -- they can now attend only services -- saying they didn't follow orders or the chain of command. He rejects the contention that he runs the church like a plantation. As a member of an order of priests devoted to black Catholics, Fest has been assigned to black parishes in Baltimore and New Orleans. "This is not a plantation," Fest said in an interview. "If I'm a racist, I have picked some interesting -- well, I didn't pick them -- assignments."

The story at Our Lady is one of clashing opinions and, for Alston and his disgruntled brethren, an attempt to regain control of what they view as their church. Their ancestors built it, and generations since have maintained it, tithed to it, sent their children to its school.

What they have learned is that butting heads with a 2,000-year-old institution is no easy task. People at every level of church hierarchy have told them the same thing: The Catholic Church is no democracy.

Some denominations choose pastors and make decisions by popular vote, but the Catholic Church is among those in which church officials decide. Popes issue decrees. Higher-ups tell pastors when to move on. Parishioners, after having had their say, comply with the decisions of their priest.

But order has broken down so thoroughly in this case that the auxiliary bishop of Washington, the Rev. Martin Holley, has sent word that the upset group should obey the pastor or find another church.

"I have never seen a group of parishioners write a list of demands and take this approach," said Susan Gibbs, Holley's spokeswoman. "The people have had an opportunity many times to have their views heard."

Alston, a determined man, is just as adamant. "I'm supposed to sit down and shut up like a child?" he asked. "They think it's their way or the highway, but it's not going to happen like that. We're grown people."

The result is chaos.

"We don't know from Sunday to Sunday if this is going to be a peaceful Sunday or everyone is going to be in an uproar," said parishioner Carolyn Wheeler, 62, whose grandfather was a founder of Our Lady.

Unsettling Changes

Eighty-five years ago, black Catholics, relegated to the basements of segregated churches, founded Our Lady with the help of sympathetic whites. The church became a landmark, what the archdiocese calls one of its jewels, and the Panorama Room became famous for its hilltop vista -- with views of two states and the District -- and its cabarets, political gatherings and town meetings. In 1989, Ted Koppel brought ABC's "Nightline" in for a forum on urban violence.

Priests -- black and white -- came and went. Issues were resolved with give and take, Alston said, but when Fest arrived two years ago, the decrees started coming.

The one that perhaps disturbed some congregants the most was the one that put Brother Marx Tyree, the subject of Alston's flier, in charge of running a slew of church activities. Those who were disgruntled, mostly the suspended members, did not like that, either, even though Tyree, a member of the same religious order as Fest, has been at Our Lady for 17 years. They say he changes meetings at a whim and refuses to answer their questions, too.

"Brother Marx is arrogant, condescending and authoritarian in his demeanor," the suspended men wrote to Fest late last year. They demanded that he be sent somewhere else.

Fest said Tyree is a tireless worker who is well-liked by many at Our Lady and effective at the tasks he is given. He said neither he nor Tyree is going anywhere until reassigned. Tyree, who is black, did not want to be interviewed, Fest said.

"We've existed for 2,000 years," Fest said of the Catholic Church. "This parish has existed for 85 years. The pastor has certain rights and responsibilities. It's not a majority-rule kind of thing."

Our Lady has 1,500 members, Gibbs said, with attendance at Sunday services about 500.

The last straw for the disgruntled parishioners came when Tyree began implementing changes that Fest ordered for the Panorama Room -- changes that the archdiocese said has resulted in a healthier bottom line.

People who used to have keys and unfettered access now must seek permission to use the room, and only for church purposes. Events sponsored by partisan groups were banned, and Fest, in concert with archdiocese policy, required all groups to acquire their own liability insurance before renting the room.

Ronald Saunders, a member of the church finance committee, said the changes were necessary, although some didn't like them.

"Their parents and forefathers built the church, but you can't live by those regulations anymore," Saunders said. "They don't want to live by the laws that govern us now. This is an archdiocese church. This is not their church."

Parishioners See Racism

Don't tell that to Alston and the men who meet Monday nights in his Hillcrest basement, the mutiny's nerve center.

Alston, 60, a chauffeur, sits at a table where a Bible rests. A dozen others take seats on bar stools, benches and sofas. Sometimes, Alston's wife, Carolyn, comes. She's also suspended.

Ailing hearts, creaky joints and gray hair are common topics of discussion, as well as razzings and disagreements over how to make their case to the public. Letters have been sent to bishops and even to Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop of Washington -- irking church leaders who said it was rude of parishioners to take problems straight to the top.

They've debated their complaints with the council that helps run the church, though some describe the debates as more like shouting matches.

What got them all suspended was passing out fliers, with their names attached, making the allegations about Tyree and gathering 100 names on petitions seeking his removal. The suspensions infuriated the men.

"If that's not racism, I don't know what is," Alston said at a recent caucus. After several people made similar accusations, Paul Kearney, a former federal investigator and community activist, piped up: "I don't agree with you calling [Fest] a racist."

But the men made a pact to speak with one voice in public, and in public there have been plenty of references to race.

To the dismay of many parishioners, the group picketed on Morris Road SE in front of the church this summer. Its placards compared Fest to a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and they chanted slogans including "Jim Crow has got to go" and "Give us our church back."

The men view their fight as a symbol of larger injustices associated with being black in America. For more than a century, black Catholics have lobbied, with some success, for recognition of their unique cultural expressions within the church, such as using gospel music and Protestant-like sermons. Still, many believe the Catholic Church isn't doing enough.

At one meeting, Bill Shelton, a lawyer, shared a passage from Randall Robinson's "Quitting America," which chronicled his decision to move to the Caribbean island of St. Kitts rather than endure racism in the United States.

"I am convinced now that I cannot change them from within or without, and even attempting to from within is to run the risk of losing one's soul," read Shelton, a suspended parish council member.

All nodded their heads in agreement.

Search for Healing

On the morning of Alston's sidewalk encounter with the priest, the Rev. Sidney Speaks gave the sermon at Our Lady. Without acknowledging the fight directly, he seemed to talk to the parties involved. Being a Christian, he said, is like that moment when a household's credit cards are maxed out and there's no money to pay the bills. Nerves get frayed, he said, causing disputes between wives and husbands. Parents get tired of their children. The same thing, he said, happens with the church.

"Sometimes the church don't move fast enough for you," said Speaks, who is black, to amens and nods. "Your patience is running low. . . . Unlike in society, when the MasterCard runs out, God is always there to recharge you."

The parish family of Our Lady could use a recharge. Longtime members said they are weary of the fights at the parish council meetings, friends not talking to one another and showing up at church on edge. "I want to be able to come in on Sundays and be rejuvenated," said Wheeler, a lifelong member. "This is the place I go to for peace and quiet."

But neither the church nor the offended parishioners have shown any willingness to compromise, to the chagrin of local Catholics.

Angela Waters, a parishioner at a nearby congregation, kept up with the issue from afar until Alston handed her a flier after a recent Sunday Mass. Her friends honked their horn for her to get in the car, but she waved them off for nearly 15 minutes, searching for a more peaceable resolution.

"Have you gone to your parish council?" she asked. "Have you tried to talk to your pastor?"

"We've done that," Alston said, as other church members implored him to go home.

The next day, after thinking through the conversation, Waters said that Alston and the others handing out fliers seemed like nice people but that "it's sad to see things like that happening. It makes me feel that Satan is getting a foothold and breaking up the church."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company