Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Battle in Michigan church between pastor and deposed deacons

Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. I Corinthians 1:10 (KJV)

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people?
Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?
Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!
Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church?
I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?
But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?
Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.
I Corinthians 6:1-8 (NIV)

As reported by Francis X. Donnelly of the Detroit News, January 2, 2013:

Saginaw — The Rev. Rodrick Smith's favorite character in the Old Testament is King David, the shepherd who became a fierce warrior and slayer of Goliath.

It was a prescient choice.

Smith, 50, pastor of Zion Missionary Baptist Church, is embroiled in a nasty fight with several political giants of Saginaw County — former Saginaw Mayor Joe Stephens and county Commissioners Moe Woods and Eddie Foxx.

The church removed them as deacons in 2011, saying they were shirking their duties. When they openly defied the move, they were kicked out of the church.

It has been open warfare ever since.

The pols filed a lawsuit in November to regain membership. They hold weekly strategy meetings and picket Sunday services.

One of their supporters, who also was kicked out of the congregation, was charged with trespassing. He was arrested in the sanctuary during a service.

"We opened a can of worms, and there's a bunch of worms in that can," said Barbara Anderson, 64, another supporter who was booted from the church.

In all, seven of the church's 550 members have been kicked out of the congregation — the three pols, two other demoted deacons and the two supporters.

Smith had warned the congregation the controversy would cause much consternation. "You all need to go and fasten your seat belts because this is going to be a rough ride," he said during a sermon in November. "There's going to be a whole lot of turbulence on this flight.

"I don't know of another church in this nation that is dealing with what we're dealing with."

The dispute has gone public and become personal.

Smith and other church leaders declined comment, but the pastor has discussed the matter during his sermons, which are available on the church website.

During those talks, he has referred to his foes as nuts and knuckleheads, clowns and reprobates, Satan and the Antichrist.

He also used a disparaging term for African-Americans. Smith and the ousted members are black.

"Them folk got the nerve to say it's scandalous that you got police officers in the church," Smith said during the sermon.

"What's scandalous is when Negroes don't know how to behave in the church. And the only way to get Negroes to act right in the church is by having police in the church."

The ousted members trumpet their allegations from the signs they take to church every week.

Congregation is split

The placards describe the pastor as a habitual liar, question a $10,000 raise he received two years ago and tweak him about his wife's arrest for shoplifting in 2007.

The dustup has caused a rift in the church, which, founded in 1868, is one of the oldest black churches in the Midwest.

Members who have shared the same pews for decades no longer talk to each other.

With membership already dwindling, given the advanced age of many members, the church can't afford to lose many more.

But, after 17 months of fussing and fighting, neither side has any intention of backing down.

"I'm in this for the long haul," said Curt Robinson, 65, the person arrested during the service. The charge was later dropped.

"We could go to another church, but we have so much invested here. There are some things you don't walk away from."

The trouble began in 2011, when seven of the church's 17 deacons received letters removing them from their positions.

The letters, signed by Smith and the chairmen of the deacon and trustee boards, said the seven had failed to make their "responsibilities as a deacon a priority."

Deacons are an extension of the pastor, helping with baptisms, serving communion to shut-ins, administering a fund for the poor.

Ever since arriving at Zion in 2001 from Plain Dealing, La., Smith has stressed that members be active in the church, according to the letters.

He chastised the deacons for failing to attend their monthly meetings and weekly prayer meetings and Bible studies.

If the deacons had put half as much energy into the church as they have in the protests, there wouldn't be a controversy in the first place, Smith said in a recent sermon.

"If you had all that energy, why didn't you use it while you were in here?" he asked.

Two deacons accepted their demotion; the other five fought it. They called and wrote Smith asking that the issue be brought before church members.

Smith refused, so they left fliers on members' cars reiterating their request.

Finally, during a church service last year, after the secretary finished reading the announcements, the demoted deacons stood in their pews.

Stephens, the former mayor, began to say a meeting would be held after the service, but Smith interrupted him and ended the service, which had just begun.

Standing in the pulpit, Smith said the deacons should be kicked out of the congregation and asked members who agreed with him to stand.

He later said nearly every churchgoer stood. The deacons said only half of them stood.

Stephens, 76, who has belonged to the church for half a century, said his group had no choice but to raise the issue during the service. "He wouldn't give us a chance to talk to the congregation," he said.

Stephens was chairman of the search committee that recommended hiring Smith and had traveled to Louisiana to interview him and acquaintances.

Asked how he felt about the decision now, Stephens just laughed.

Choosing sides

Every Monday, the ousted deacons and supporters meet at a Saginaw community center.

A meeting last month drew 21 people. With an American flag on the wall, they began and ended the hourlong session by joining hands and praying.

They listened to a CD of an earlier sermon by Smith in which he said the battle between him and the deacons was nothing less than good versus evil.

Church members need to decide whose side they're on, he said. If they choose wrong, they could face the wrath of God.

The deacons and their supporters tittered as they listened to the recording. Their laughs contrasted with the "amens" uttered by churchgoers during the sermon.

"I need to tell you something," Smith said on the recording. "We all have faults."

"You got that right," said Woods, the county commissioner.

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