They came together because they shared a belief in liberal values. They stood for inclusiveness, multiculturalism, diversity. They were Muslims, Jews, Christians -- but ideologically, even theologically, they were kin.
In its early years, as its membership doubled and then tripled in size from its original 25 members, the Bull Run Unitarian Universalist Church (BRUU) crammed services in members' homes. Later, the congregation bounced from location to location.
Being turned out of its space in the cafeteria of Seton High School, a private Catholic school in Manassas, because of its abortion-rights stance served to affirm members' resolve to find a permanent congregational home.
Later, still searching for a home for its 135 members, church leaders one day called on the tenants of an ivy-covered, red-brick building in Old Town Manassas -- Redemption Christian Church, a Pentecostal congregation. At first, Redemption Christian was open to the possibility of sharing the building's ample space with Bull Run Unitarian. But then Redemption Christian found out that Bull Run Unitarian's liberal attitudes extended to a tolerance of homosexuals and included community outreach for gays and lesbians.
That was five years ago.
In April, the tables turned. After several failed efforts by Redemption Christian to buy the $580,000 building at Main and Church streets in which it had worshiped for the last seven years, Bull Run Unitarian was able to marshal a decade of member contributions and yard-sale savings for a down payment. Suddenly, Bull Run Unitarian's search for a home ended.
And then, just as suddenly, Bull Run Unitarian was embroiled in a bitter dispute that has splintered the Manassas religious community along racial lines.
The leaders of the predominantly black Redemption Christian have accused their long-time landlords, the mostly white Grace United Methodist Church, of tricking them out of the church they felt was rightly theirs and of selling to the mostly white Bull Run Unitarians.
Thus, Bull Run Unitarian, a congregation that embraces diversity, found itself being accused of a subtle racism. Leaders at Bull Run Unitarian and Grace United call it a business situation. But when you're talking about churches, vexing moral questions are inevitably part of the deal.
It started with a bad break.
In 1995, Redemption Christian was working out a contract with Grace United to purchase the red-brick church it had begun to consider home. But faulty electrical wiring in the church's administrative offices caused a fire that burned through three floors.
Insurance covered most of the damages. But it was left to church members to scrub the smoke-stained walls and usher the stench of burnt wood from the building.
The sale was delayed. Then, in September 1998, Redemption Christian was ready to buy again. It said it had secured financing from a local bank, signing a contract with Grace United for the property that included a nonrefundable $25,000 deposit.
Then, another bad break. The lender withdrew its financing.
In January, Grace United sued Redemption Christian for the promised $25,000 deposit. In March, the two churches signed a settlement agreement giving $15,000 of the deposit to Grace United to cover rent, which Redemption Christian hadn't paid since September, $5,000 to the real estate broker and a $5,000 refund to Redemption Christian.
Steve Smith, an attorney representing Grace United, signed for his church. Redemption Christian, unable to procure a lawyer, had Pastor Rene Harris read the agreement and sign it.
,3 "We were there only to disburse the deposit," said Marion Melvin, a Redemption Christian senior deacon who was also at the signing. "We took it in good faith. Smith told us we were signing to release the funds. He didn't say anything about releasing the property from the contract. We were hoodwinked."
Smith said he remembers the signing of the release agreement differently.
"It has always been Pastor Harris's vision to buy the church, and he has fought hard for his vision," Smith said. "But Pastor Harris knew there was other interest out there. He knew it was time to move on."
The settlement agreement included giving Redemption Christian three months rent-free, something Smith said was added so the church could find a new home.
Within days of the settlement, Bull Run Unitarian, which had talked to Grace United about the property a month before the signing, purchased the building. And just like that, a homeless congregation had a home, and an earnest congregation was homeless.
Gary Garriott was a member of Bull Run Unitarian for 14 years. A year ago, Garriott left, taking his children with him. His wife, who is an active member of the congregation's choir, remains a regular member. He still counts many of his closest friends among the membership.
"Frankly, I left because I felt BRUU was acting more like a business than a church," Garriott said.
Today, Garriott believes he was right.
"BRUU had been interested in the old Grace Methodist building before, and my sense is that BRUU had a good sense that if they successfully bid on the property, it would have an adverse effect on Redemption," Garriott said. "If you're a business, you don't think about these things. But BRUU is a church. They should have called Redemption and asked how it would affect them."
Leaders of Redemption Christian say neither Bull Run Unitarian nor Grace United told Redemption Christian of the pending sale. It was Garriott who informed Redemption Christian.
Garriott said he tried to broker a meeting between the two sides. "I was attempting to see if there could be a way Pastor Harris could address the BRUU congregation as a whole and simply present his point of view," he said.
On March 22, Garriott wrote a letter to Kathleen Allan, the minister of Bull Run Unitarian, asking that a dialogue be opened between the two churches.
"Failing to at least make a sincere effort to communicate with Redemption about their fate . . . could just as easily look to some like a rich, white church indirectly booting out a poor, black church from a property [the black church had] occupied and apparently maintained as good stewards for many years," Garriott said.
Harris never spoke to the Bull Run Unitarian congregation. But he did send a letter to Bull Run Unitarian's board of trustees asking the church to reconsider its purchase.
"We decided it wouldn't work for either congregation based on logistical reasons," Allan said. "We can sympathize with the frustration of losing a congregational home, as we share a similar history of searching for a place of worship."
In recent weeks, Redemption Christian has lobbed accusations of racial discrimination and unscrupulous business dealings. Last week, it lost in its effort to block the church sale to Bull Run Unitarian.
On Monday, Redemption Christian moved the contents of its church into storage. It will hold services soon in Buckhall Fire Station, outside Manassas.
Despite the accusations, Allan said, the leadership of Bull Run Unitarian maintains a clear conscience about the purchase.
"We have searched our hearts and our minds, and we have come to a cleanness and a clarity about this purchase," she said.
Doris Galvin, one of the founders of Bull Run Unitarian, said the modern challenge to churches is to balance the bottom line and a higher power -- to be businesses with a conscience.
"If you own property, if money comes in and money comes out, you're a business," she said. "But superseding all of that, you need to have a sensitivity to all people involved."
Allan agrees that the pressure to find a home has put great pressure on her congregation, but she says her church acted honorably.
"There's no doubt there were two streams here: the legal/business and the moral questions that Redemption has raised," Allan said. "But this is not about one congregation trying to kill another off.
"Yes, it has been unpleasant. No, it was not racism. We have been neighbors, and we will continue to be neighbors."