Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pennington Church in Property Dispute With Former Conference

The conference says it owns the property because of a trust clause signed by the church’s trustees in the 1940s.



JONESVILLE — Members of Well’s Chapel Church in Pennington Gap say they are fighting to keep what is rightfully theirs.
At a hearing last Wednesday in Lee County Circuit Court, the Well’s Chapel Board of Trustees filed a complaint to keep the church’s former governing conference — the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America — from selling its house of worship.

David Grace —
Shown is Well’s Chapel Church in Pennington Gap.

Because of the complaint, the hearing was continued and rescheduled for May 26.
The two parties were originally in court because of a petition, filed by the A.M.E. Zion Church in early April, to advertise the sale of Well’s Chapel Church of Pennington Gap.
The conference says it owns the property because of a trust clause signed by the church’s trustees in the 1940s.
Sandra Mitchell, a 44-year member of Well’s Chapel who is on the church’s board of trustees, said the congregation believes it is the rightful owner of the property, regardless of what the A.M.E. Zion Church claims.
“We’re fighting to keep the church because we feel like it belongs to us,” Mitchell said. “Everything that’s been done and all the work that’s been done on it, it’s been done by us. The conference hasn’t done it. We’ve asked them to help us, but we’ve never received anything.”
A hierarchical religious organization, the A.M.E. Zion Church contends its Book of Discipline contains a trust clause stating that local churches and congregations that own property do not own it for themselves, but for the conference instead.
In addition to claiming ownership, the petition, which was filed by a trustee appointed by the Mid-Atlantic II Episcopal District, contends that Well’s Chapel accepted pastors appointed by the conference and used its “names, customs and polity” in such a way “as to be known to the community as part of that denomination” prior to its split from the organization.
Calls to the Mid-Atlantic II district, which oversees the A.M.E. Zion Church’s East Tennessee and Virginia Conference, were not immediately returned.

David Grace —
Pastor Charles Robinson, front, poses with members of the Well’s Chapel Church in Pennington Gap. From left, are: Sandra Mitchell, Jill Carson, Ron Carson, Shirley Taylor, Roy Carson and Raily Taylor. Church members believe they are the owners of the property.

Jill Carson, who is also on the Well’s Chapel Board of Trustees, said one of the main reasons the church — which has roughly 20 active members — split from the conference was money.
“In 2003 we decided we had to drop out of the conference because we couldn’t afford to remain in it,” she said. “The church has been here since 1940. It needed a roof, it needed repairs, but we could not continue to pay those huge annual assessments, pay the pastor and do what we needed to do to maintain it. So, it was with much prayer, and discussion, that we came to our decision.”
The complaint to quit title, filed by attorney Joe Wolfe on behalf of the Well’s Chapel board, objects to the sale and says that the property was originally conveyed through a constructive trust to the “A.M.E. Zion Church of Pennington Gap, Va.” for local use.
It further asks the court to determine the actual ownership of the property through a jury trial and questions the legality of the conference-appointed trustee tasked with handling the sale, asking for trustees that “hold the property for the benefit of the local congregation of Pennington Gap as stated in the deed” to be appointed instead.
The complaint goes on to state that the A.M.E. Zion Church failed to provide monetary assistance of any type since Well’s Chapel joined in 1901 and lists numerous expenses the congregation paid.
It also contests some of the claims in the petition, stating that Well’s Chapel was associated with the A.M.E. Zion Church in name only and that a Book of Discipline was never provided and the congregation was never advised it was subjected to it.
In addition, the complaint claims the conference did not have “clean hands” in its dealings with the congregation because it had allegedly appointed a pastor with a prior felony conviction.
Although a decision won’t be reached until the end of May at the earliest, Carson said losing the church would not only impact the members of the congregation, but the community as well.
“This is family, it’s family property that has been passed down from generation to generation,” Carson said. “There are two black churches in this community, one is a Baptist church and one is this one, and it’s real important, no matter how we look at it.
“To take that away would be huge. It would have a tremendous adverse impact on our community. And the contributions that this small black community has made to this church are tremendous.”
Until the case is settled though, Mitchell said members of the Well’s Chapel congregation will rely on their faith and hope for the best.
“I’ve been in it all of my life, and it doesn’t look now like it did then because of all of the renovations and improvements, but it’s still the same place and same values,” Mitchell said. “We want to keep it, but I know God’s in charge of every decision and however he wants it, that’s how it’s going to be.”

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