After being shut out of their church and told to leave the grounds by their pastor last June, the 20 or so members of Zion Missionary Baptist Church are again praising God.
The church, which is located at 891 Weeks St. in East Palo Alto, was shuttered in June 2014 after its then-pastor Andre Harris decided to retire. What he did not tell the congregants was that he was selling the church and an adjacent home, which the congregation owns, according to a lawsuit church members filed last July in San Mateo County Superior Court.
Harris and others named in the lawsuit settled with the congregation on March 20, returning the church to the congregation. The terms are confidential, but the principal plaintiff in the case, deacon Arthel Coleman, said he is satisfied with the agreement. The church members have their property back, and its doors are open again.
A stained-glass window above the pulpit still bears the acronym BACC -- for the church's name under Harris, Born Again Christian Center -- but the church has returned to its roots and its founding name, which dates to 1969. Once more than 100 members strong, its numbers had dwindled since Harris became pastor in 1999, Coleman said. But church members said they will work hard to once again fill its pews.
On a recent Sunday, Coleman greeted the faithful at the door. A woman helped congregants to their seats. Her white and silver usher's pin gleamed against a dark, neatly pressed suit. The church members entered as gospel music swelled from boom-box speakers. A little girl handed out paper fans so congregants wouldn't use the Bibles when fervor took over.
Guest Pastor Cleo Barkus, past president of the Pure Gospel Church of God in Christ, raised his arms up and looked to the heavens.
"God's in the midst," he said.
Barkus turned to his Bible and opened to a passage from the Psalms.
"Lord, who shall abide in the tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness and speaketh truth in his heart. ... He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent," he read.
The words seemed like a parable of what allegedly had taken place here for nearly a year: a reward taken against the innocent and the righteous work that helped save the beloved church.
The trouble began in early May 2014. Church members found a real estate sign on the next-door house at 871 Weeks St., which had served as the rent-free home for the pastor and his family.
San Mateo County deed records showed the Harrises had the ownership transferred to themselves as a "gift."
Soon after, a for-sale sign also appeared on the church property. When members gathered on June 29, 2014, for services and to demand an explanation regarding the sales, Harris reportedly handed them notices of ex-communication and barred them from entering.
Coleman filed suit against the pastor and his wife, the pastor's brother Kenneth Harris and his wife, Rhona Edgerton-Harris -- who were the real estate agents and notary in the transactions -- the church trustees and the home's new buyer. Church members Yvonne Duncan, Christine Porter and Elaine Blue later joined the suit, according to court records.
Coleman's attorney put a stop to the church sale and filed restrictions on the deed to the house. The church's bylaws state that its real property is not to be sold or transferred without approval of members of the church, according to the lawsuit.
The Harrises and their attorneys did not return a request for comment on the lawsuit or the settlement.
Blue was ecstatic when she finally received the keys to the church. Then she opened the doors and found a heartbreaking mess inside, she said.
"There were people living inside, using drugs. There were people taking a bath in the baptismal pool," she said.
She spent more than a month working from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. to clean the church, she added.
But this past Sunday, light streamed in, illuminating the wall behind Pastor Barkus. Singers, ranging from children to seniors, took their places in front of the altar. Their voices rose to the ceiling and carried along the church's walls.
The usher raised her voice to testify, and everyone listened intently.
"It was God" who reopened this church, she said. "'This is my house,' (God is saying). 'My house is where I dwell in, and you don't close my doors.'"
The church members have a steadfast loyalty to their place of worship. Zion Missionary is more than a place to pray, the congregants said. People have spent all of their lives in this church. Some were brought here as infants and baptized here; others have raised generations under its roof.
Canes leaned against the pews, and children wiggled in their mothers' laps. It has been an accepting place, this small church on the corner, its walls enveloping the most needy and downtrodden without prejudice, they said.
A rail-thin woman with several teeth missing wiped away tears as she prayed, thanking Jesus for this day; a young man with disabilities wandered up to the pulpit and stood beside Barkus as he gave the Lord praise.
This church is a place where people can testify to their experiences, to their triumph and their pain. Here, they receive answers. And if not answers, then the strength to carry on amid hardship or to offer gratitude for blessings and redemption, Barkus said.
Harleen Rafiee-tari, Coleman's mother-in-law, remembered how the church once was: its humble beginnings in an old house; how its numbers grew; and how it has returned to its beginnings again. One of the church's earliest members, she had returned this day from southern California as a guest speaker to help support the congregation, she said.
"I used to walk these grounds and I would pray all over on this land. ... The Lord let this church be a light on this corner, and all he asks is for you to be faithful. It doesn't matter how small you are. Don't look at what's not here. When we first started, there were a few people. Then the church kept growing and growing," she said.
"You walk by faith, not by sight. And the more you walk by faith, the stronger you become," Rafiee-tari said.
The congregants walked to the front of the church, placing offerings in a donation basket: $1, $5, $10, then a $50. The ushers prayed over the offerings, asking God to help them grow.
This church was built not only with the members' money, but with their own hands, members noted. Coleman is a carpenter, like Jesus. He has devoted countless hours maintaining a sanctuary where people could find joy and solace and a place to belong. Outside, he gestured across the plaster facade with an outstretched hand.
"Right here, we're going to be putting up a big sign soon. It will say 'Zion Missionary Baptist Church,'" he said, pointing proudly.
Back in the church, Barkus said he came here at Coleman's invitation, but he does not know if he will be asked to be its pastor. If he does, it will be God's will, he said.
Building trust will not come easily, he acknowledged. Trust must be hard won after so much loss.
"This man is still hurting," he said, gesturing toward Coleman.
The trustees will take their time, Coleman said.
"This time, we want to make sure we have the right person."