When Redemption Christian Church moved from a Woodbridge basement to Old Town Manassas eight years ago, Marion Melvin helped move furniture into the red-brick building on Main Street.
In 1996, after an electrical fire tore through three floors of the church, Melvin came in every morning to repaint and rebuild before going to his day job. "We've put eight years of sweat" into the building, said Melvin, 62, of Gaithersburg.
Yesterday, Melvin showed representatives of a moving company around to get an estimate. The owner of the property, Grace United Methodist Church, has sold the building to another church and has asked Redemption Christian to vacate by Friday.
The sale has touched off a bitter dispute in the Manassas religious community. Leaders of Redemption Christian, a mostly black Pentecostal congregation, contend that they had the financing to buy the building but that Grace United Methodist decided to sell instead to the mostly white Bull Run Unitarian Universalist Church out of racism.
For their part, officials at Grace United Methodist said that Redemption Christian twice tried--and failed--to work out financing to buy the building. The Methodists said they ultimately decided in March to sell to the Unitarians--for $580,000--because they no longer could afford to own two churches. They also say they gave Redemption Christian three months--rent-free--to find another location.
But Pastor Rene Harris, founder of Redemption Christian, said yesterday that he questions Grace United's motives.
"If this issue was not racially motivated, it was certainly unethical," Harris said.
"We have weathered a fire and fluctuations in membership, and yet after all we have been through, a predominantly white congregation sold the property to another predominantly white congregation with nothing vested in the property when a predominantly black congregation was struggling to buy the property. . . . That is not Christian."
Harris said that in January, the Methodists rejected a purchase offer from Redemption Christian that included owner financing. Two months later, he said, Grace agreed to help finance a purchase by the Unitarians without informing Redemption. In the meantime, Harris said, Redemption had found a private investor willing to advance $525,000 to buy the property.
The Rev. John T. Martin Jr., of Grace United, said yesterday that his church wanted to sell to Redemption Christian, "but we had the feeling they didn't have the cash income to make these mortgage payments."
He said Redemption Christian had a history of precarious finances, including being late on several rent payments. The congregation's financing arrangements to buy the building fell through twice, Martin said, and "at that point, the trustees simply didn't feel it was going to happen, and Bull Run made us a solid offer."
He said the decision was based strictly on who could afford the building. "It is very disappointing for them to accuse us of racism," Martin said. "If we were racist, we wouldn't have rented it to them in the first place. It is easy to take something like this and tear a community apart."
In March, the two congregations signed a mutual release of the property, effective June 15. According to Martin, during the intervening months, the Methodists allowed Redemption Christian to occupy the property rent-free so the church could search for a new location.
Harris acknowledged that his 85-member congregation has had to scrape by at times. But he said his church believed that even after signing the release agreement, it was entitled to continue looking for financing.
That was not Grace United's understanding, Martin said. He said the Methodists were surprised to find Redemption Christian unprepared to move out last week. Martin said that it was only at the last minute that the tenants began to level charges of racism and to threaten a lawsuit.
"When you sign a release, you assume they will go," Martin said. "Legally, we are where we need to be."
Melvin, the longtime member of Redemption Christian, seemed resigned yesterday to having to move. "We are just going to have to remobilize," he said. "When you tear down one castle, another one can be built."
CAPTION: Rene Harris, Redemption Christian's pastor, said owners accepted an offer similar to the one his church had made.