The 24,000 members of a Temple Hills congregation whose pastor had broken with the church will get a chance to return to their old denomination this Sunday, now that church leaders have installed an interim pastor.
Saying that he had been spiritually stymied, the Rev. John A. Cherry and some members voted last month to leave the 203-year-old African Methodist Episcopal Zion movement to form From the Heart Church Ministries.
But Bishop Milton Williams, of the Mid-Atlantic II District of the church, said Cherry and his flock, from Full Gospel AME Zion Church, can't just pull up their church roots. On Sunday, as more than 600 worshipers looked on, Williams installed Staccato Powell, a 39-year-old minister, as the "supply pastor" of Full Gospel AME, which will meet this Sunday at the Colony South Hotel in Clinton.
"Full Gospel AME Zion in Temple Hills, Maryland, is still going," Williams declared during a service last Sunday at Trinity AME Zion in the District. He had tough words for Cherry, who not so long ago was a most generous member of the Philadelphia and Baltimore Conference of the AME Zion Church.
Last month, Cherry and what he said were more than 15,000 followers voted to break away from the AME Zion Church. But on Sunday, Williams, who was a member of Cherry's church, disputed that number. "There was no 15,000 people voting," he said. "If all of the overflow rooms and both sanctuaries were packed, it would only be 8,000 people."
Williams dismissed as unimportant the annual dues of more than $67,000 that Cherry's church paid to the AME Zion denomination. "That's peanuts," Williams said. "There are some churches one-tenth of the size of Full Gospel that pay $50,000" in dues.
Williams has appointed a transition team that will assist in organizing the new church and selecting a permanent pastor. Powell said Sunday that he couldn't be the permanent pastor of the church because he is the deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in New York and is being considered for the top post of that organization.
"My heart is at the National Council of Churches. I don't want to do anything that would conflict with my position there," said Powell, who added that he accepted the position as interim pastor of Full Gospel because Williams asked him to and because he "took ordinational vows" when he became an AME Zion minister 20 years ago.
Cherry has refused to comment, but members of From the Heart Church say he is giving updates during the church's services on Sunday and Tuesday nights. From the Heart Church Ministries has sanctuaries in Temple Hills and Clinton.
Lawyers from the AME Zion Church have been meeting with officials of From the Heart Ministries in an effort to work out a more peaceful resolution to the split. Even though Cherry broke away from the church, AME Zion doctrine stipulates that church property belongs to the denomination.
In the last 18 years, Full Gospel has gone from being a group of 24 members who owned just a storefront to a 24,000-member church that reportedly has millions in the bank, two sanctuaries, a 10,400-seat building under construction and a Lear jet for the pastor's travels.
When asked why he was pulling out of the AME Zion movement, Cherry said in his only interview, "Growth necessitates change, and change necessitates growth."