The Free Gospel Church of Christ, a popular fundamentalist congregation located at the District line in Prince George's County, is seeking to evict a tenant at a nearby shopping center it owns for -- among other things -- selling Bibles and other religious items.
The tenant, Convenient Community Services Unlimited Inc., a large, cluttered store that sells everything from gospel record albums and groceries to Penthouse magazine, is next door to the church in a run-down shopping center. The church, which was founded by Bishop Ralph E. Green and has grown to about 2,000 members, bought the Coral Hills shopping center at Marlboro Pike and Southern Avenue last year.
Although church officials would not discuss their dispute with Community Services owner Loumis Taylor for this article, court papers and interviews show that the parties have disagreed for months over matters of competition, advertising and a question of $3,450 in back rent.
On April 9, Prince George's District Court Judge Louis J. DiTrani ruled that the company managing the shopping center for the church, F.G. Development Corp. Inc., could terminate the store's lease for nonpayment of rent and failure to adhere to an agreement made last year concerning the store's operations. The execution of the eviction was later put off until tomorrow.
In the agreement last year, according to court papers filed Oct. 18 and signed by attorneys for both the store and the church, the church said it would accept $1,700 as payment for the back rent owed if Taylor would stop selling "all Bibles, gospel albums or records and the Bible on cassette recordings for the duration of the defendant's lease." Taylor's lease expires in 1988.
In Taylor's store, past the jars of incense and herbs, over from the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls and behind the greeting cards, a small display features Bibles and a rug woven with a figure of Christ.
Along the wall, bins of gospel records by artists such as Mattie Moss Clark and the Swanee Quintet shared space with more secular albums by wild-haired soul singer Chaka Khan and the scantily clad Mary Jane Girls.
Taylor, who said he has operated his store at the center for five years, has argued in court and in interviews that Green's real motive in the eviction proceedings is to eliminate any competition with the religious bookstore the church operates.
The shopping center, which was recently renamed Green Hill Plaza, was purchased from Columbia Realty Venture for $700,000 and is subject to state taxes as long as it is used for profit-making activities, a spokesman for the state department of assessments and taxation said. Tenants said the church took over the shopping center last August.
Green, his assistant Joan Wilson and his attorney Gary Primavera, would not comment on the case or allow a reporter into the church for an interview. But tapes of their April 9 appearance in Landlord-Tenant Court indicate that the parties in the dispute have reached an impasse.
Taylor said in court and in an interview that after the October agreement, he reduced the $10,000 worth of religious inventory he stocked at Christmas time to less than $1,500, but the church reactivated the court action last month.
"It's been one underhanded move after the other," Taylor said bitterly in a recent interview.
"F.G. Development has a lot of problems with Mr. Taylor," Primavera said in court. " The church is interested in compromise. We have a right to possession of the premises based on his failure to live up to the agreement we entered into. We've had a history of problems like this."
Court records, including Green's testimony, and interviews with Taylor tell this story:
Taylor said he made thousands of dollars of improvements to his leased space last year and had agreed with a property manager who later left F.G. Development that he could credit that expense to his $850-a-month rent. Church officials later said they knew of no such agreement and demanded full payment of the difference.
At the same time, Green complained in court to Taylor that he did not like the fact that Taylor was selling Bibles, cassettes, gospel albums and other religious items two steps from a lottery ticket sales booth in his store.
Green also argued that Taylor's broadcast advertising, which at one time was heard right after the church's weekday noon radio broadcast on WUST, gave the false impression that the church was affiliated with Community Services.
"Some of my listeners were coming to your store thinking it was my store," the minister said in court. "It created a big problem."
Taylor and other tenants of the shopping center said in recent interviews that this is not the only dispute with the landlords. They said that Green had not fulfilled promises he made to them concerning improvements to the interior and exterior of the complex.
Green has "given me a lot of hearsay and talk," said Harold Robinson, the manager of the Hi-Gear Discount Auto Parts store.
Robinson complained that his landlord has not kept promises to fix the roof, install new signs promptly and provide relief from the parking problems created when the church is open for Sunday and weeknight services.
Hilda Pemberton, the County Council member who represents the district in which the church is located, said that she has been working with Green and his church to obtain financing for renovations at the shopping center. "That shopping center is important to me, because it is one of the gateways into Prince George's County and into my district," Pemberton said.
She said the church's dispute with Taylor sounded like a "communications problem" to her.
DiTrani, sitting in District Court, appeared to agree with that assessment after the church rejected his attempt to engineer a compromise in the dispute.
"It does rub me against my grain," he said of his decision to uphold the church's right to evict Taylor. "It seems to me you're using a technicality to get rid of this guy."