Pray Tell

At an Opa-locka church, good faith has been supplanted by a lawsuit over financial disclosure

Even in this age of ultrahigh finance, it's churchgoers' blind faith that their contributions to the collection plate will be well spent by others. No receipts requested, no quarterly spreadsheets provided. Among a group of parishioners at Mount Hermon African Methodist Episcopal Church in Opa-locka, however, that trust has eroded. They want to know where their money is going. And frustrated by the fact that the church's pastor, the Reverend Y. Benjamin Bruce, hasn't been forthcoming with the institution's financial details, the parishioners have taken their concerns to court.

Earlier this month 140 churchmembers filed a class-action suit against Bruce and the church, demanding a full financial audit and the creation of new bylaws governing financial management. Further, the group wants a circuit court judge to halt construction of a new multimillion-dollar addition to the church until Mount Hermon's leaders supply the financial accounting. A groundbreaking ceremony for the new annex was held earlier this month; no court date has been set regarding the lawsuit.

The conflict has shaken the 44-year-old house of worship to its cornerstones. The plaintiffs, who call themselves the Concerned Members of Mount Hermon Church, say that as the dispute has escalated, the predominantly black congregation, which once numbered about 1800, has dwindled to only about 600 active worshipers. "The church in the black community plays a major role as far as the molding and the uplift of the community," explains Robert Thomas, chairman of the breakaway group. "We want to look upon the minister of the church as a leader. But we've had doubts about [the Reverend Bruce's] spiritual and welfare leadership."

Two years ago Bruce was appointed by A.M.E. Church officials to take over the leadership of the congregation from another pastor who had presided for about a decade. Robert Thomas says there had been talk among parishioners back then about the growing need for a financial accounting, particularly with the church addition on the drawing board. "We just felt it was time for an audit," he says now. "We didn't know how money was being spent."

The reverend, however, refused to provide any information pertaining to revenues and expenditures, and this past November the rebellious parishioners formed the Concerned Members group. They began holding weekly meetings at an Opa-locka elementary school and stopped making their tithes to the church, depositing the money in an escrow account instead. In December they met with Bruce at the insistence of Bishop Frank C. Cummings, the presiding official for the A.M.E. Church's Eleventh Episcopal District, which encompasses Florida and the Bahamas. (The Washington, D.C.-based A.M.E. Church, a leading black denomination of Methodism, counts more than two million people among its adherents worldwide.) In addition to concerns about Mount Hermon's financial management, the group voiced discontent about Bruce's pastoring style, including his alleged habit of personally monitoring who donates money during services and who doesn't, as well as his purported tendency to reprimand congregation members by name from the pulpit.

Thomas contends that Bruce has made no effort to sort out their complaints. Requests to meet directly with the bishop, they say, were likewise ignored. The group has even purchased space in the Miami Times, a weekly serving the local black community, to air their discontent. (Neither Bruce nor other officials from Mount Hermon returned several messages for comment for this story. A representative for Bishop Cummings at A.M.E. regional headquarters in Jacksonville referred all calls to Bruce.)

Feeling that they had exhausted all administrative remedies, the Concerned Members resorted to legal action. "The lawsuit was the last thing I wanted to do, but we felt that we couldn't get anything any other way," says Thomas, a Mount Hermon parishioner for the past fifteen years. "We could have easily left that church and went on to someplace else, but we've put time and energy into that church."

Observes another group member, Betty Timmons: "The reason you don't have a lot of rebellion in the church is because you don't have to go. When people get tired of one place, they go somewhere else." But, adds Timmons, many parishioners have attended Mount Hermon for more than a decade and thus have developed an allegiance that predates Bruce's arrival.

This is not the first time Bruce has been at loggerheads with worshipers over finances. In 1983 when Bruce was pastor of the Mount Olive A.M.E. Church in Orlando, several members of that church sued him with similar demands. The court initially deferred the matter, in order to allow the plaintiffs to pursue their claims before the A.M.E. Church's judicial council. When the council found that church rules didn't entitle members to an audit and that adequate bylaws already existed, the case went back to court. Mount Olive was ordered to conduct a one-year audit at its own expense and to open its safe-deposit box for the plaintiffs' inspection. By the time the Orlando matter was resolved, however, the Reverend Bruce had left that church.

 
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