Jericho City of Praise in court battle over control

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010

Almost a month after the death of Apostle Betty Peebles, church leaders at Jericho City of Praise in Landover are embroiled in a court battle over control of the more-than-15,000-member congregation and millions of dollars in assets.

At the center of the feud is Elder Joel R. Peebles, assistant pastor of Jericho and Betty Peebles's son. Four days after his mother's death, he was in a Prince George's County Court facing the attorney for the church's six-member governing board.

Last year, the church opened Jericho Residences, a $52 million independent-living facility for seniors. The church also owns a $9 million office park, a $36 million sanctuary and more than 125 acres, including several parking lots leased to the Washington Redskins during home games.

Betty Peebles died of cancer Oct. 12, and Joel Peebles has since led the church. Isaac H. Marks, attorney for Jericho Baptist Church Ministries, said Betty Peebles wanted her son to preach at the church - not run it entirely.

"He has asserted that the control of the church is essentially his birthright, but it is not," Marks said during a recent hearing before Prince George's Circuit Court Judge Nicholas E. Rattal. The judge denied a temporary restraining order against Joel Peebles and instead ordered that the case be heard in the spring. But Rattal described the church's plight as "a train running down the track and over a cliff if someone doesn't make a decision."

Joel Peebles said in a brief interview, "My mission is to walk in love and to lead the Jericho City of Praise." He referred questions to the church's associate minister and lawyer, Bobby Henry, who said that Betty Peebles "wanted her son to lead the ministry."

The complaint has split Betty Peebles' top advisers. In addition to Joel Peebles, William Meadows, the original chairman of the trustee board, and other longtime aides are listed as defendants.

When Betty Peebles got sick, Henry said, board members made moves to seize control. He said that in the past decade, Joel Peebles has presided over "90 to 95 percent" of funerals and played an integral leadership role.

Marks had a slightly different take. "He preaches at services, he counsels, he teaches a class," Marks said, "but he doesn't manage the church, he doesn't handle the finances. There is no corporate document that shows he is a trustee."

Betty Peebles was the chief executive officer and chairman of Jericho's board of trustees, and at one time her son was a member of the board.

But Marks said she removed Joel Peebles from being in charge of the church's school, Jericho Christian Academy, after it ran into financial problems.

Peebles denied that, saying, "I never handle the finances of the school." And Henry added that Betty Peebles had been the school's "administrator and chief financial officer."

During last month's court hearing, Henry said that in her final months, Peebles's mental sharpness began to waver. Her final weeks were spent on life support.

A pretrial hearing on who should run the church is set for March. In the meantime, leaders on both sides of the case continue to work together and express hope that their issues can be resolved before the matter goes to court.

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