Members of an East Palo Alto church who invited a pastor to tend their flock now accuse him of pulling the wool over their eyes. Members of the Born Again Christian Center say Pastor Andre Harris put the church's two properties up for sale without their knowledge or permission and is taking the money for himself.
The lawsuit was filed in San Mateo County Superior Court on Monday, July 28, and alleges that the pastor, trustees and real estate agents conspired to gain title to the properties and sell them to enrich themselves.
Church members were never consulted about selling nor gifting to the Harrises the church at 891 Weeks St. or a home provided to Harris at 871 Weeks St., according to the lawsuit. The church bylaws state that real property owned by the church is not to be sold or transferred without approval of members of the church, according to the lawsuit.
The suit claims breach of fiduciary duty and corporate waste; violation of corporation codes that prohibit certain distributions of property from religious nonprofit corporations; attempts to defraud the church and its members; and conversion of the home for the Harrises' personal use.
The lawsuit asks for an injunction against the sale of the church and to rescind the sale of the home, which closed escrow on July 21. The suit also asks the court to remove the board of trustees, which is made up of Harris' family members, and to direct the proper election of a new board.
"He claims that the properties were gifted to him by the board. The church belongs to the members," said Deacon Arthel Coleman, who filed the lawsuit. Palo Alto Attorney Stephen Pappas is representing Coleman.
Coleman and other church members said they want to get a new pastor and rebuild their church, which has dwindled from about 100 members to about 20 since Harris became pastor.
The problems began in April after Harris announced he was retiring, according to several church members who met with the Weekly.
"He said he didn't want to die in the pulpit," Coleman said.
But in early May, church members arrived for services to find a real estate sign on the next-door home. A church member looked up the records at the county recorder's office and found the deed had been transferred to the Harrises.
San Mateo County Recorder's Office records show that on April 17, Andre and Gloria Harris transferred the deed to the Weeks Street home from the church to their names. The grant deed was transferred to the Harrises as individuals with the word "gift" hand-scrawled and the names "Andre L. Harris, Sr. and Gloria L. Harris" hand-written in as the grantees.
A for-sale sign also soon appeared on the church property. When church members gathered for services on June 29 to demand an explanation and to protest the sales, Harris reportedly handed them notices of ex-communication and barred them from the church.
"Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Born Again Christian Center is informing you because of your inconsistent attendance over the months or years, we have therefore removed you as a member," the letter stated. "You therefore no longer have any rights or privileges to conduct any matter at the said Church. ... We are informing you of your removal and permanent ban of membership at Born Again Christian Center."
"I saw him just the week before. He never said a word. We hugged," Coleman said, shaking his head.
Longtime church members Sheron Romes, Elaine Blue and the church's usher also received ex-communication notices despite all having consistently attended the church, they said.
Romes wiped away tears while talking about it. She said she didn't understand how this could happen.
"We trusted too much," Blue said.
The church was first established in 1969 as an unincorporated association, named the Zion Missionary Baptist Church. It was incorporated in 1973 under the same name, according to the lawsuit.
A congregation member, Decon Armstrong, donated the properties, with the home to be used as a residence for the church's pastor. The congregation built the church with its own money, Coleman recalled. A carpenter by trade, Coleman has voluntarily repaired and improved the buildings for the good of the church, he said.
The pastor's position has always been unpaid, but the pastors have resided in the next-door house rent-free, Coleman said. When the church needed a new pastor in 1999, Harris was serving with another pastor at the True Life Baptist Church in East Palo Alto. Zion's members brought him over on a trial basis and decided he could stay, members said. Harris and his family moved into the Weeks Street house.
In 2004, the organization changed its name to Born Again Christian Center to be more inclusive, Coleman said.
When Harris came in, his family members began to join the church and "infiltrated" the board of trustees, which was never formally elected, according to the lawsuit. The board members included Harris' wife, Gloria; two nieces, April Ingram-Black and Laesheia Turner; and Kenneth Harris, the pastor's brother, according to court papers. A fifth seat was vacant at the time.
Kenneth Harris and his wife, Rhona Edgerton-Harris, are agents with Century 21 Alpha Pacific in East Palo Alto, and their company currently lists the house and church properties for sale. The two-bedroom, one-bath, 790-square-foot home is listed at $399,950; the 2,797-square-foot church on a 12,502-square-foot lot is listed at $999,950.
The deed transfer gifting the home to the Harrises was notarized by Rhona Edgerton-Harris, according to files in the county recorder's office.
Church members who called Century 21 Alpha Pacific said they were told there was no problem with the home sale because the trustees gave the church to Pastor Harris, they said.
The Harrises allegedly entered into a contract with a buyer, Allan A. Johnson, for the home. On June 23, the Harrises changed the house's grant deed back to Born Again Christian Center with the hand-written notation, "Erroneously deeded from church to individuals, should not have been granted to Andre Harris and Gloria Harris."
They did so after being required by a title company to change the deed back to Born Again Christian Center to complete the sale to Johnson, as there are statutory prohibitions on the transfer of property from religious organizations, the lawsuit alleges.
A representative of the title company listed on the deed, Old Republic Title in San Carlos, said she could not comment on the transaction and referred all comments back to Harris.
Andre Harris told the Weekly that he has no comment, other than that he is moving the church to the East Bay.
"My ministry is done here in East Palo Alto," he said. The issues are "a very private matter," he added. Gloria Harris has also said she has no comment.
Reached at his office on Wednesday, Kenneth Harris also said he has no comment.
"I'm just a Realtor, and this was just a real estate transaction," he said.
Johnson, Ingram-Black and Turner could not be reached for comment.
Coleman also filed complaints with the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office. District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe has not commented on whether the complaints are being investigated.
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