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Community and History

Shiloh Church Dissenters Attempt to Oust Pastor
By Washington Post
Aug 14, 2007, 11:14

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By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 14, 2007; B01

A simmering dispute between the longtime pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, an institution in the District's Shaw neighborhood, and some of his congregation erupted over the weekend when more than 140 members of the church crowded onto a patch of grass outside and voted that he should leave.

But their Saturday vote of 138 to 6, with one abstention, was renounced by the chairmen of the deacon and trustee boards. They declared yesterday that the vote to remove the Rev. Wallace Charles Smith was "not authorized" under the church's constitution. Instead, they scheduled a congregational meeting for mid-September to discuss Smith's tenure.

In an extraordinary display of discontent with Smith, congregation members had announced their intentions weeks ago. But when they arrived Saturday morning, they discovered the sanctuary was locked. So they set up lawn chairs, tables and tents that they brought with them.

Black-bordered signs posted on a door cited the church constitution and declared: "There will be no official meeting of Shiloh Baptist Church." Church members loyal to Smith came out of the church and tried to photograph the dissenting members, organizers said.

At the end of the two-hour meeting, they placed ballots in a box, checking "Go" or "Stay." Hired auditors announced the vote to remove Smith from the pulpit, prompting the gathered members to applaud and then sing the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."

The dispute over Smith, who has led the church since 1991, has pitted church leader against church leader. Many of Smith's opponents have been members since before he was hired in 1991 and remember worshiping under his predecessor, the Rev. Henry C. Gregory III. Many of Smith's supporters are relative newcomers.

The church -- which has a membership of about 2,500, according to church officials, or as little as 1,000, according to the dissidents -- has been in turmoil over Smith's pastorship for months. The unhappy church members have said Smith has sold off church property and used the proceeds to pay operating expenses and has not been forthcoming about what has happened to money and property left to the church in the estates of deceased members.

Church leaders have defended Smith's performance and said the dissident members do not represent a consensus view. "A small discontented group of Shiloh Baptist Church members, with no authority to act or speak for the congregation, has given the media an inaccurate picture that suggests the church is in turmoil," a church spokeswoman said last night. "This is not the case."

Church officials, who said Smith is traveling, said yesterday that he remains the senior pastor. They scheduled a Sept. 15 congregational meeting at which anyone can offer a motion to vote on his tenure.

The uproar has blemished the reputation of the historically black church, which was started by freed slaves after the Civil War and has maintained a congregation at Ninth and P streets NW since 1924. For decades, it was an essential stop for campaigning District politicians, and its board of trustees includes former White House officials, top congressional aides and the head of the Greater Washington Urban League.

But the church has been racked by internal disputes. Since June, the District has issued condemnation orders on six dilapidated and vacant church-owned properties nearby.

Arthur Henderson, a spokesman for Shiloh members who held the vote to oust Smith, said they believe the church is heading in the wrong direction, citing declining membership and questionable handling of the church's money and property. Henderson said Smith has refused their request for an independent audit of the church's finances.

Smith also angered some members by accepting a full-time job as president of the Palmer Theological Seminary near Philadelphia without telling the church first. The pastor now spends several days a week at the school, Henderson said.

The legitimacy of the vote outside the church depends on whether adequate notice was given.

"Based on the Shiloh Baptist constitution and bylaws, the vote outside the church . . . is not authorized," said a statement from George R. Johnson Jr., interim chairman of the deacon board, and Christine B. Clark, interim chairman of the trustee board. "Nonetheless, we are still prayerful that we can amicably resolve this unfortunate matter and work toward our goal of a unified church that is focused on God."

Pamela Bethel, attorney for the dissident group, said that if the church does not accept the group's vote to remove Smith, the group might go to court to have him removed. "We probably won't wait until September 15th," she said.

In Smith's absence Sunday, minister Thomas Bowen preached. His sermon: "A Heavenly Message for Hellish Times."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2005 by ShawDC.com

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