In Hyattsville a battle has erupted on once-serene 42nd Place, spawning charges of racism, harassment and shady business dealings.
All this, and a zoning violation, too, came when the Celestial Church of Christ, an African church, bought a house on the street nearly a month ago intending to make it a place of worship.
This did not please the next-door neighbor, Spencer Hines, who is a Hyattsville City Council member. He complained to police, who warned the nearly 50 church members that they could not worship at 5204 42nd Place because there was not enough parking to comply with zoning codes.
That Hines had called on the police to prevent services did not please the church members, most of whom are Nigerian. Immediately they charged that Hines wanted their church out of the neighborhood and used the zoning code as a cover for his "racial harassment."
The next Sunday, July 11, when members of the Celestial Church of Christ assembled in the morning at the house to worship in protest, the Hyattsville police again appeared. Rather than issuing warnings, the police issued citations to all the people at the services.
Celestial Church members descended on the next City Council meeting. Mayor Tom Bass tried to explain that zoning laws specifically prohibit religious meetings at a house the size of the one at 5204 42nd Place.
"According to zoning laws, a church can be put in any zone," Bass said last week. "But there has to be a certain number of parking places. They needed at least 14 spaces and that is next to impossible, even if we let them pave over their entire lawn."
Soon, Bass said, the meeting became more like a circus. "Last week they began allegations that the City Council was against the worship of God," he said, "even after we tried to explain to them there were other things involved. I tried to tell them it was a problem they had with their real estate agent, who should have told them about the zoning codes."
The owner of the real estate agency that sold the house to church representatives said he was never told it would be used for as a place of worship. Alfred Ekuban of Alfred Ekuban Associates said the house was not even listed with his company, but he had found it when the church representatives were referred to him.
"If I knew something about what they were using the house for before I sold it to them and still sold it to them, then I would say I could be in big trouble," Ekuban said. "But all we knew was that they wanted a big house with a lot of open space. We thought it was just for a big family."
Ekuban, who is from Ghana, said Hines accused him of being a member of the church and of knowing what the house would be used for and deliberately keeping it a secret. Hines was on vacation last week and unavailable for comment.
Because of the charges of possible business impropriety, the Prince George's County Board of Realtors has begun an investigation and is expected to decide the grievance by mid-August. It is also possible that Ekuban's transaction could be brought before the board's professional ethics committee, a move that Ekuban says would be unfair.
"I'm doing my best to make everyone happy," Ekuban said. "I've offered to help them sell this house and find another, more suitable for a church. I've even lowered my commission on the deal from 6 percent to 4 percent."
Members of the church say they are unhappy about having to move and place all the blame on Hines and the Hyattsville city government.
"We met with Mr. Hines and he assured us that he would help us find a better place," said Olusegun Ijelu, treasurer and assistant to the leader of the church. "But that was two weeks ago and we still haven't heard back from him. The last thing we heard was he wanted to find a place for us in D.C., even after we told him we could not go into D.C. because we already have a registered church there."