New Pastor, Old Legal Fight
Saturday, June 17, 2006
In a four-hour worship service at Verizon Center that attracted nearly 10,000 people, the Rev. John A. Cherry Sr. last month turned over the pulpit of one of the Washington area's largest churches-- the 27,000-member From the Heart Church Ministries-- to his son.
"It is a wonderful thing for a father to see his son take up the mantle," the 66-year-old Cherry said during the June 4 installation, as Maryland Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller (D-Calvert), Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, among other politicians, sat in the front row.
Eight days later, the Rev. John A. Cherry II, 36, was in a Prince George's courtroom, thrust into a six-year-old legal dispute that has become the most troublesome part of his father's legacy. Sitting without family, he listened as attorneys for the AME Zion Church argued that From the Heart, which broke away from the AME Zion denomination in 1999, should be ordered to return about $40 million in assets.
"I am confident that God's will will be done," the younger Cherry said to a reporter, declining to comment further.
Cherry's father was pastor of Full Gospel AME Zion Church for 18 years, watching it grow from a congregation of 24 people in a Suitland storefront to a 24,000-member church with huge sanctuaries in Temple Hills and Clinton. He broke from the denomination in July 1999, saying that the voice of God had told him in the middle of the night, "Get out of Zion; get out now." Most of his congregation followed him, leaving the AME Zion movement and joining From the Heart.
The denomination's leaders did not dispute Cherry's divine encounter. But they did challenge his claim that the assets of the church-- including the two sanctuaries, several school buildings and a Lear jet-- now belonged to his breakaway congregation.
In March 2000, a Prince George's Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the denomination, ordering From the Heart to turn over the properties. But the Maryland Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in July 2002 and ordered a new hearing in Circuit Court.
The legal battle is being followed closely by other denominations concerned about how the outcome could affect them in any future property disputes with breakaway congregations.
At the recent hearing in Prince George's Circuit Court, which began June 9 and ended Monday, attorneys for the Philadelphia-Baltimore Conference of the AME Zion Church argued that the denomination's internal rules, known as the Book of Discipline, state that all property acquired by a local church must remain with the denomination.
But Philip W. Horton, a Washington lawyer representing From the Heart, said the provision in question was too "fuzzy" for the court to draw such a conclusion. The congregation's attorneys have argued that it is entitled to keep the property because its members purchased it with their money when they belonged to Full Gospel. Attorneys for the denomination played the audiotape and provided a transcript of a May 1998 meeting at which the elder Cherry told thousands of Full Gospel members that he had no plans to leave the denomination and that his proposal to restructure his ministries-- putting Full Gospel under the umbrella of From the Heart Church Ministries -- would not result in any changes at the church.
"And the Disciplineof the AME Zion Church is still our guideline. So nothing's going to change," Cherry said on the tape. "No, it doesn't have to change if you already have a theology and you already have a Discipline. That's why we're not leaving the AME Zion Church."
Thomas L. McCally, one of the denomination's attorneys, said Cherry deceived the members about his plans so that they would approve a change in bylaws that gave him, his wife and his son full control over the church's assets. Horton denied that allegation, saying Cherry's comments at the meeting were unrelated to the decision a year later to break away from AME Zion.
Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Sheila Tillerson-Adams gave no indication of when she would issue a ruling.
"I hope that we can soon get this behind us for the benefit of thousands," said Bishop Warren M. Brown of the Mid-Atlantic II Episcopal District of the AME Zion Church, who attended the hearing. "It is not about John Cherry versus the AME Zion Church. This is about what is right according to the law and right according to the Discipline."
During his son's installation service, Cherry said he was stepping down as pastor so he could become more involved in overseeing From the Heart's global ministries. There are now 17 From the Heart churches around the country, as well as congregations in India, Ethiopia, Guyana, Indonesia, Italy and France, according to church officials.
Cherry said he is looking forward to leading a world ministry but will miss being a local pastor.
"It's like sweet and sour," he said in an interview. "The people here, I have grown up with them. I married them. I baptized them. I buried their pastors. They have been interwoven in my life, and I in theirs."