The Jericho City of Praise in Landover has always stood as a towering symbol of a success that Pastor James and Betty Peebles started with a just a few people in a cinder block building near a Northeast Washington public housing complex more than 40 years ago.
But the future of the church was thrown into doubt Wednesday when the sanctuary’s board of trustees fired the founders’ only surviving child, the Rev. Joel R. Peebles, the church’s acting pastor. Peebles, 42, said he was notified in writing of his dismissal when he arrived at the church to begin preparing for an evening Bible study session.
Jericho has deep roots in the Washington area faith community. The Peebles family has led the the church since 1964. Started in a public housing complex, its first church home was in the Kenilworth section of Northeast Washington. Now it stands on a sprawling campus in the shadows of FedEx Field in Landover.
At one time Jericho was one of the largest churches in the Washington area. Its 10,000 seat sanctuary has been a popular venue for gospel concerts, revival meetings and other events that featured many of the country’s top theologians.
Jericho City of Praise reached megachurch status — generally those that have more than 2,000 members — in the late 1970s or early 1980s. It continued to grow quickly as it caught a surge of suburban migration to Prince George’s and is now one of the region’s largest congregations.
Apostle Betty Peebles, who led Jericho City of Praise after her husband’s death in 1996, spearheaded its transformation from a church anchored in urban Washington to a wide-ranging community center and commercial developer in Prince George’s County. She died in 2010, and her son has been in court battles with a governing board she put in place before she died of cancer.
“I have been ministering at this church for 23 years and I have only missed three Sundays,” Joel Peebles said Wednesday. “I probably needed a vacation anyway. Our mission is not to fight, get mad at people and be angry. ... Our mission is to save souls.”
Betty Peebles’s nondenominational church was popular because it attracted newcomers with a suite of amenities reaching far beyond its 10,000-seat sanctuary, including an academy for students from pre-kindergarten through high school, a Christian college, counseling services and an apartment building for senior citizens.
Perhaps because of this rich history, Joel Peebles said he will fight to regain his leadership role in the church his parents started with just a handful of followers.
“Somebody has to care about the people who love God, but mama didn’t raise any wimps,” Peebles said. “Within the law, we are going to fight. These people sued me four days after my mother passed.”
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