Mount Gilead Baptist Church is safe for now.
A state district judge recently granted a restraining order that keeps the future of the historic black church, which was offered for sale this spring, in limbo, the latest move in a bitter legal battle that has pitted church members against their pastor and deacons.
Patrick Rucker, described in court documents as a self-appointed interim pastor from Dallas, pushed for the sale.
Paradox Church, a young but growing 650-member congregation that holds services in Van Cliburn Hall, has offered $2.5 million for the property.
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But four church members hired a lawyer in May to file for the restraining order, claiming that church leaders don’t have the right to sell 102-year-old landmark that greets people arriving downtown on Spur 280.
Members worry that the history the church holds — and represents — will be lost if it is sold.
“People from out of town came here to see this church,” said Ernest Mackey, one of the members who filed the petition. “This was the aristocratic church in the black community. All the lawyers, doctors, teachers, plumbers, carpenters, they went here and their children went here. It had a library with law books, an orchestra, an indoor pool.”
“They built the pool so black kids would have a place to swim, because they could not swim anywhere else in town,” said Mackey, a member since 1948. “At that particular time they tried to offer as much as they could to the community.”
State district Judge John Chupp granted the restraining order in May, but the legal wranglings have spilled over into the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth. The appeals court will decide if Chupp has the authority to rule on whether the leaders of the church have the right to sell the property.
That decision will likely determine the future of the church, which was established by 12 former slaves in 1875.
The building in dispute was built in 1912.
Mackey said Mount Gilead remains one of the few properties in downtown Fort Worth that have long been owned by African-Americans.
Among the most well-known properties in the same area of Mount Gilead were the Jim Hotel and the Fraternal Bank & Trust Co. — both owned by William Bill “Gooseneck” McDonald. The hotel, a hotspot for nationally known African-American musicians and entertainers, and the bank were cornerstones of what became known as the “Ninth Street Drag.” The drag boomed in the 1920s but virtually disappeared by the 1960s, when the construction of the convention center forced the demolition of several blocks of buildings on the southern edge of downtown.
They built the pool so black kids would have a place to swim, because they could not swim anywhere else in town.
Ernest Mackey, Mount Gilead church member
Mount Gilead, a neoclassical, red-brick building that is fronted by six massive columns, survived, but is struggling.
A message above the church’s name that says “Come Unto Me” beckons to passing motorists. But those who stop to look more closely see paint peeling from the columns, discoloration around the windows, and chips of stucco and wood that have fallen to the ground.
In a recent sermon, Rucker told the congregation that the church, whose membership has dwindled to about 35 members, cannot escape its problems. God can answer their prayers, Rucker proclaimed.
“Look to the hills from where your help cometh. Your help cometh from the Lord,” Rucker said.
He then broke out in song, “My heavenly Father, He watches over me.”
‘It’s church business’
Mackey and about a dozen other church members attended the court hearing in June to make sure Mount Gilead did not go the way of so many other black-owned institutions that once surrounded their church.
The defendants in the dispute are Rucker and deacons Randy Green and Lynn Davis. They maintain that the four members who petitioned the court for the restraining order — Mackey, Patricia Williams, Jannis Dilworth and Joyce Britt — are no longer church members because Mount Gilead’s constitution calls for the immediate dismissal of any church members who take the pastor and/or the church to court.
The validity of that constitution is also being contested in Chupp’s court.
Natherral “Nate” Washington, the attorney representing Mount Gilead church members, maintains that the constitution that has been filed with the courts “is not worth the paper it is printed on.”
Washington also said that church officials took money from Mount Gilead accounts to pay their attorney $1,500 without discussing it with the congregation, and are still paying their lawyer with church funds, Washington said.
“The members are not getting any accounting,” Washington said.
Rucker and the attorney representing church officials, Jonathan Chatmon, declined to comment.
“We’ll talk to you about it when it’s over, maybe,” Rucker said. “Until then, it’s church business.”
I’m not there to save the building. I’m there to save the church.
Patrick Rucker, Mount Gilead interim pastor
Rucker testified that church officials are trying to save the church, not destroy it.
“I care about the church,” Rucker testified. “If it’s in decline, the building will be bought by someone. I’m not there to save the building. I’m there to save the church.”
‘Then we got this call’
According to testimony from Mount Gilead deacon Lynn Davis, church membership and finances have been in decline since the death of Pastor Cedric Britt in March 2009.
After Britt died, Jonathan Adams became pastor, but he left in August 2015. Rucker assumed the preaching duties after Adams left and made a power play for the church, members said.
Rucker said when he arrived he found a church building in distress. He testified that the church had no insurance, that paint was peeling off the walls, the air conditioner barely worked and the building had been invaded by mold.
“The deacons asked me to look into the condition of the building and look into a possible sale,” Rucker told the court. “At the time there were no buyers. And then we got this call.”
The call was from Paradox Church.
Rucker said he attended a February meeting where Paradox Church officials talked about a merger of the two churches since Mount Gilead was without a pastor.
By March, that merger offer had evolved into a contract to buy the Mount Gilead property, Rucker said. The plan was for Mount Gilead to use the proceeds from its sale to purchase a building being sold by Southwood Baptist Church, about 10 miles southeast of the downtown church’s location, Davis said.
“The offer was made directly to me,” Rucker testified. “It was in writing in the form of a contract. The price was $2.5 million.”
Rucker said no real estate agent was representing the church in the deal.
1875 the year Mount Gilead was established, by12 former slaves.
Southwood Baptist Church does have a building for sale, according to Pastor Dan Williford. He confirmed there have been some discussions involving Southwood’s Realtor and Mount Gilead officials.
Joyce Britt, the former pastor’s widow, testified that she was told the church could have as much as $500,000 left from the sale — and after purchasing the Southwood property. Britt, who said she has been a member since 1979, said a majority of the membership has repeatedly voted against selling the church.
“Rev. Rucker told us that he was here to help us find a pastor, but that’s not what he tried to do,” Britt said.
It is unclear whether church members conducted a documented vote to approve or disapprove of the church sale, according to church officials.
But on April 14, according to Rucker’s testimony and court records, Rucker appointed three of the four deacons now serving, and they agreed to pursue a sale.
“The deacons took a vote and did what they wanted to do,” Rucker said.
‘I don’t want to see it die’
Paradox Church Pastor Jim Essian said he remains open to the idea of combining his congregation with Mount Gilead’s and wants to refurbish the old and graying church.
Paradox Church is about five years old and has had services in eight different locations in Fort Worth, Essian said.
I just want to see Mount Gilead go forward. I don’t want to see it die.
Lynn Davis, Mount Gilead deacon
Paradox, which has a minority membership of about 10 percent, would welcome the opportunity to minister to Fort Worth’s Hispanic and African-American communities, Essian said.
“We are open to whatever they want to do,” Essian said. “We look at that building as a tool for us to do our mission. It would be a lot easier for us to find a permanent facility in the suburbs, but we feel called to be downtown.”
Davis, the deacon, testified that Paradox provides his church an opportunity to live on.
He said Mount Gilead is the only church he has known since high school.
“I just want to see Mount Gilead go forward,” Davis said. “I don’t want to see it die. We don’t have the resources to repair the building. Here, there’s someone who has offered us another building that has all the amenities we need. We’ve been praying to God to help us save the church.”