RIFT AT HISTORIC CHURCH
Judge Overturns Vote To Oust Shiloh Pastor
Saturday, September 15, 2007
The embattled pastor of one of the city's oldest African American churches will get to keep his job after a D.C. judge yesterday threw out a vote by some church members to remove him from office.
About 150 members of Shiloh Baptist Church, many of them bused to the courthouse by the church, crowded into the courtroom at D.C. Superior Court and gathered outside the courtroom's open doors as attorneys argued whether opponents of the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith had followed church rules in voting last month to remove him from the pulpit.
Some broke into sobs of relief and hugged each other in celebration after Judge Mary Ellen Abrecht ruled that a vote to fire Smith was invalid.
"I'm elated," said Jo Fisher-Hall, a Shiloh member for 16 years. "God has answered our prayers."
The 144-year-old church, at Ninth and P streets NW, has been wracked by acrimony for months over the leadership of Smith, who has guided the church for 16 years.
Opponents accuse him of taking another job without telling the church, wasting millions of dollars in assets by failing to make repairs to church property that the city government has condemned and other transgressions. Supporters praise Smith as a capable, dynamic leader who is not responsible for the church's problems.
At a meeting held in the church parking lot Aug. 11, 138 church members voted to oust Smith. But afterward, church leaders announced that they would ignore the vote and instead scheduled their own balloting on Smith's tenure.
Church members opposed to Smith then filed suit against him, charging breach of contract. The suit also charged fraud and breach of fiduciary duty against Smith; Christine Clark, interim chairman of Shiloh's board of trustees; and George R. Johnson Jr., interim chairman of its board of deacons.
The acrimonious case has pitted church member against church member. Each side claims it represents the majority of church members, and the case now involves nine lawyers, public relations representatives for each side, hundreds of pages of court filings and repeated hearings.
But yesterday, Smith's opponents lost the opening round when Abrecht sided with church leaders in their contention that the dissident church members had not followed the church's constitution, which details how and when church members need to be notified of church votes.
"This is a dissident group of members who wanted to vote when they wanted to vote," said Bridnetta D. Edwards, an attorney for Shiloh church members who support Smith. She argued that the vast majority of church members did not know about the Aug. 11 meeting until after it was held.
Smith's supporters "were appalled to turn on the news . . . and hear their pastor has been dismissed," Edwards told the judge.
Smith's opponents said that they were unhappy with the ruling but noted that the bulk of their case -- the allegations of fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty -- have not yet been heard in court. Abrecht has scheduled another hearing for Oct. 5.
"The battle is still ahead of us," said Michael Frazier, a church member for 25 years who is among those who initiated the lawsuit.
Smith said he was relieved by yesterday's outcome and hoped to heal the animosity in his church with "good, positive dialogue" and by holding as many "uplifting and healing worship services as we can." The church has scheduled a prayer service for today.
"When you read the Bible . . . there are times when religious life in groups is very difficult," he said. "But you pray that the congregation will be stronger and that God's people will find sufficient common ground to be able to work through it."
But there were few signs yesterday of a rapprochement between the warring parties.
"My feeling is the church as a whole would welcome them back," said supporter Fisher-Hall, a 16-year member of the church. "However, this has been a dissident group from day one, and I don't think they are ever going to change."