The Rev. John A. Cherry and 2,000 of his followers recently walked seven times in the rain around the new headquarters of their multimillion-dollar ministry, casting himself as a modern-day Joshua, circling his Jericho to assure victory over his enemies.
Cherry, pastor of From the Heart Church Ministries, evoked the name of the Old Testament prophet when he dedicated a building that is part of millions of dollars in assets involved in a court battle over the church's decision to break away from the AME Zion church.
The office building, which county records show the church purchased in February for $1.922 million, has been named the "None Suffer Lack" building because it has everything from a medical clinic staffed by several church physicians and nurses to a barbershop and a pampering salon. Although the complex is primarily for the church's 24,000 members, church officials say nonmembers will not be turned away.
"The goal of everything that shall take place in this building is to ensure that those who believe and are in one accord shall not suffer lack," Cherry said during a dedication prayer Oct. 17.
In July, Cherry and more than 15,000 of his members voted to leave the 200-year-old AME Zion denomination. The dedication service was a moment of respite for Cherry, who for weeks has been dishing out fire and brimstone against AME Zion leaders in a series of sermons entitled, "It Is Time to Reform the Church."
For almost two decades, Cherry and his congregation were known as Full Gospel AME Zion. At one time, the congregation was the fastest-growing church in the 1.5 million-member AME Zion denomination. Unlike most churches in a denomination steeped in tradition and authority, Cherry and his flock embraced speaking in tongues, healing and "spiritual gifts," more often found in a Pentecostal church.
At exactly 2 a.m. on June 13, Cherry said, he heard the voice of God say, "Get out of Zion, get out now." Then Cherry and his members voted to withdraw from the denomination, drop the name Full Gospel AME Zion and change the church's name to From the Heart Church Ministries.
During their encircling and dedication this month, Cherry and his members didn't let a cold rain dampen their spirits as they marched around the sprawling 51,000-square-foot office complex in the 4700 block of Auth Road in Suitland.
The Rev. John A. Cherry II, the church's assistant pastor and son of the pastor, said: "The purpose of the building is to further the vision of From the Heart Church Ministries. Our objective is to raise the quality of life for each of our members spiritually, administratively and financially."
But the AME Zion leadership is not going to allow Cherry to go quietly.
Bishop Milton A. Williams, who heads the Mid-Atlantic II District of the AME Zion church, has accused Cherry of violating the law by leaving the denomination and not relinquishing the property. "John Cherry can leave, he can take people with him, but he can't take the property," he said.
On Aug. 23, From the Heart Church Ministries filed suit in Prince George's County Circuit Court against the AME Zion denomination because Williams set up a new church in Clinton and named it Full Gospel AME Zion.
"The denomination has turned a simple difference of religious approaches into a battle over money, property and public reputation," said attorneys for From the Heart, who also asked a judge to declare From the Heart the owner of all church property.
But in a motion to dismiss Cherry's suit, attorneys for AME Zion said that Cherry and his trustees "orchestrated a prolonged devious scheme to swindle assets and property from the national AME Zion organization."
Cherry's attorneys countered in court papers that "Full Gospel did not include a clause in any of its property deeds mandating that its properties be held in trust for or revert to the AME Zion denomination."
While lawyers for Cherry and the AME Zion church wage war over the church's assets in court, members of From the Heart Church Ministries and some ministers who are part of the AME Zion church are hoping the dispute can be resolved peacefully.
"This is a church, not a controversy," the Rev. Louis Anthony, pastor of Metropolitan Wesley AME Zion Church in the District, said as he conducted services at the Colony South Hotel in Clinton for those not wanting to leave the AME Zion denomination.
Cherry, a former furniture salesman who has said his marriage was on the rocks, had a conversion experience and started a church in 1981 with 24 people who met in a storefront space that was his home decorating business in Suitland.
Today Cherry is pastor of a church that has two sanctuaries, a 10,000-seat church under construction on Wheeler Road and a former Giant grocery store that will be renovated for church use. In addition, the church owns a Lear jet and still holds the note on a $480,000 home that AME Zion church pays for Bishop Williams to live in.
Describing the mission of the complex, Cherry II said, "This building is not the vision, but it is the place where the vision of God will be housed." He added that all the construction and renovations to the building were done by members of From the Heart Church Ministries.
CAPTION: Members of From the Heart Church Ministries gather around the church's new complex during the rainy dedication Oct. 17. The 51,000-square-foot office complex, in the 4700 block of Auth Road in Suitland, is called "None Suffer Lack" because of all it offers, including a barbershop and medical clinic.