Flock Goes, Assets Stay
Md. Judge Rules Property Belongs to AME Zion, Not Breakaway Church
By Hamil R. Harris
The elders of Full Gospel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church never disputed the divine encounter, and they didn't interfere when Cherry took his 24,000-member congregation in Temple Hills and broke away July 8, setting up From the Heart Ministries.
But AME Zion leaders are sure that God did not tell Cherry that he could also take the Learjet, two sanctuaries and nearly two dozen properties worth a total of about $38 million.
Yesterday, a Prince George's County Circuit Court judge looked to a 1979 Supreme Court case and AME Zion rules to find that AME Zion--not Cherry's breakaway congregation--owned all the assets except a five-story building purchased by Cherry's church after the break.
Ruling from the bench during a hearing, Judge Allen E. Shepherd said, "Property acquired by the local church must remain with the denomination." He was referring to the 200-year-old African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, with its 1.5 million members worldwide.
The ruling sent a visible tremor through the audience of more than 200 church leaders from across the country who packed the courtroom in Upper Marlboro.
The decision was unexpected by both sides, who had thought their months of legal skirmishing would end in a trial that would last several weeks. Cherry sued the AME Zion denomination in August because he wanted his church to keep the assets and the name Full Gospel AME Zion.
Although Cherry is expected to appeal Shepherd's decision, the ruling was a boost for Bishop Milton A. Williams, leader of the Mid-Atlantic II Episcopal District in Washington. Williams wept after Shepherd announced his ruling.
"The civil court has determined that the claims of the AME Zion church were sound and right," Williams said. "While we rejoice with this outcome, our hearts continue to be with our brothers and sisters from From the Heart Church ministries."
Cherry was out of town yesterday, a spokeswoman said.
Cherry has been a dynamic figure in the Prince George's County church community, rising from the helm of a storefront church that had 24 members 18 years ago to the pulpit of a 24,000-member church with mega-sanctuaries in Temple Hills and Clinton. Cherry's congregation is building another sanctuary with 10,400 seats in Temple Hills.
His church expanded in the manner of many other large, predominantly African American churches in Prince George's, building cavernous sanctuaries with high-tech sound systems, elaborate pulpits and plush pews.
Several of those congregations also are independent of major denominations or have broken away from major denominations.
Cherry's church once donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the AME Zion denomination, which requires all local churches to pay annual dues. But in June, after he wasn't elected to the church's General Conference, Cherry started attacking church leaders in his pulpit, charging that they put more value on property than on people's souls.
Cherry, who at one point in his career befriended President Clinton and sat in the gallery for the 1995 State of the Union address, has always been viewed as something of a nonconformist in his denomination. He embraced speaking in tongues and healing by touch, rituals more often found in Pentecostal churches. Just before Cherry broke away last year and formed From the Heart Ministries, he referred to AME Zion elders as "purple dogs," for their purple regalia and their interference with his work.
Church leaders on both sides said privately yesterday that the dispute could have been settled out of court if Cherry and Williams had tried to work it out. Williams still lives in the $320,000 house in Fort Washington that Full Gospel AME Zion purchased for the bishop in 1994.
Shepherd's ruling comes four months after another Prince George's minister, the Rev. C. Anthony Muse, pastor of the 4,000-member Resurrection Prayer Worship Center, broke away from the United Methodist Church and walked out of a heavily mortgaged $6 million sanctuary in Brandywine that the denomination is now paying for.
Although AME Zion leaders won the court battle yesterday, the spiritual war does not appear to be over.
The Rev. Cain Hope Felder, a United Methodist minister and professor at the Howard University School of Divinity, said that the charismatic leadership of Cherry and Muse should be a wake-up call to more traditional church leaders. But he also was critical of the two ministers.
"Why does Cherry need a Learjet? For a black pastor to have a Learjet is almost obscene, all these trappings of corporate success in light of the social and economic state of black America," he said.
After the court adjourned yesterday, the Rev. Scot Moore, a former member of Full Gospel AME Zion, said the events were troubling. "It is sad that it has come down to this," said Moore, pastor of Judah Temple AME Zion Church in Mitchellville. "All of this is embarrassing to God."
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