The Rev. Stephen Gentle stood at the pulpit of his historic District church Sunday and urged his congregation to give thanks — for the good and the bad. “We have had to learn to give thanks and praise to God,” Gentle said, “as we have been meeting one challenge after another, after another.”
To Gentle and others at National City Christian Church, the past few years have been a never-ending crisis. Like many downtown churches, it has seen its membership and fundraising dwindle. The church was rocked by a former pastor’s plagiarism in 2003. Then, August’s earthquake caused tens of thousands of dollars in unsightly damage that the church cannot afford to repair.
Worst of all, the congregation’s leaders have had to spend the past three years unwinding an $850,000 embezzlement scam that drained National City’s budget and forced the church to cut back on its ministry and staff.
Some members left the congregation, and others spoke of closing the church’s doors. But a core group refused to quit. Whether it was fixing choir chairs, answering phones, cleaning the sanctuary or pulling weeds and planting flowers on church grounds, dozens of congregants banded together. In some ways, the fallout from the scam has made National City stronger.
“These last few years have been extremely difficult,” Gentle said. “But we have seen the congregation come together like we have not seen in a long, long time.”
National City, the nearly 170-year-old flagship congregation of the 660,000-member Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), routinely drew 800 people to worship on Sundays in the 1950s and 1960s. President James A. Garfield preached from its pulpit, and President Lyndon B. Johnson regularly attended services.But at a recent Sunday service at the majestic church on Thomas Circle, about 125 worshipers, many of them retirees, sat scattered among 62 pews.
The scam only exacerbated National City’s problems. It came just a few years after the congregation was embarrassed by news that its pastor, the Rev. Alvin O’Neil Jackson, had plagiarized sermons delivered by another minister. Jackson left the church and was replaced in early 2006 by Gentle, a soft-spoken pastor of a Florida church. Gentle’s mission, as many members saw it, was to help heal the reeling church.
For a few years, Gentle made progress. But the church was tested again in 2008, when its leaders found discrepancies in financial records. At first, they thought their chief financial officer, Jason T. Reynolds, was simply a bad bookkeeper. Then they realized Reynolds had stolen about $850,000 in church money to buy cars, flat-screen TVs and jewels.
At one point, Reynolds gave Gentle and his sixth-grade son two tickets to a Washington Wizards game. Gentle realized later that Reynolds’s tickets had been financed by his church.
“I was literally sick to my stomach when I realized that,” said Gentle, 51, who would testify at Reynolds’s trial. In August, Reynolds was convicted of 12 fraud-related charges, and Gentle wrote a letter to the federal judge on the eve of sentencing that described the “pain, distrust and financial hardship” that had been inflicted on his church. On Nov. 9, Reynolds was sentenced to more than eight years in prison.
The scheme, which ran from 2002 through 2008, clobbered the church’s finances. Reynolds had covered up his theft by shifting money from one account to another but had left many invoices unpaid. The church was forced to dip into its endowment to pay a $40,000 electric bill or face darkness. It had to cut back on its ministry, including slashing a popular summer-enrichment program for kids. Gentle and church leaders cut the institution’s $2.4 million budget in half. One-third of its 21 workers were laid off.
The church’s endowment, also battered by a bad economy, fell from $8.4 million in 2007 to its current level of $4.8 million.
At meetings, members vented about their next steps, even wondering whether they should shutter the congregation. In the end, members and Gentle say, their choice was obvious: They would not surrender to a crime.
“We felt very strongly that as a church of God, how dare we even think about closing the doors?” said Loretta Tate, the congregation’s lay leader.
Soon after learning that her church was in financial trouble, Kathleen Swihart, a staffer who had looked after elderly and sick parishioners for more than 20 years, approached Gentle — and laid herself off because she knew the church was going to be strapped for money. The same afternoon, the 78-year-old started volunteering, continuing to help the elderly while also taking shifts at the church’s front desk, which is now staffed by a rotating squad of congregants.
Barbara Collins, a retired teacher and longtime church member, began recruiting volunteers. They spent months reupholstering dozens of church chairs. They published the weekly bulletin and monthly newsletter. When the cleaning and grounds crews were eliminated, volunteers began scrubbing the church and cutting grass. Over two summer Saturdays, they planted dozens of impatiens and mums to form a cross on the front lawn.
The food pantry, which serves the area’s poor, had once been overseen by staffers. Like so many other duties, it soon was taken over by volunteers. To thank the pantry’s unpaid workers, another crew recently remodeled the drab windowless space, with its stained walls and leaky pipe, leaving it clean and brightly painted.
On Monday, four volunteers were expected to help decorate the sanctuary for Christmas; 18 turned up. “It just warms your heart,” said Collins, choking up as she watched congregants fluff artificial Christmas tree limbs and place red and white poinsettias in the choir loft.
Off to the side was Gentle, who stopped by to check on the volunteers’ progress. A day earlier, he had spoken from the pulpit about faith, hope, betrayal by a trusted employee and giving thanks “even in times of hardship like the embezzlement and theft.”
As he watched the volunteers scurry about, the pastor said nothing.
He just smiled.