When John A. Cherry Sr. decided last year that his congregation needed to break away from the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion denomination, he said the driving issue was the need to respond to God's voice. Today, the pressing issue has become who will keep about $38 million worth of church assets and property that Cherry and his 24,000-member congregation took with them. The disputed assets, which include a Learjet, two sanctuaries, and 150 acres of undeveloped land, are currently in the possession of Cherry's From the Heart Church Ministries. The Temple Hills, Md.-based ministry broke away from the denomination last July. In March a Prince George's County Circuit Court judge ruled that the bulk of the property belonged to AME Zion and would have to be returned. But when sheriff's deputies, acting on the order of the trial-court judge, began seizing the assets, From the Heart won a stay against the seizure, allowing it to keep the property until a final appellate court ruling. The congregation grew out of a 20-person Bible study Cherry started in his home in 1981, which soon affiliated with the AME Zion Church. The affiliation was natural for Cherry, whose father and grandfather had also served as AME Zion ministers. Under the name Full Gospel AME Zion, the church's congregation grew rapidly, becoming the largest congregation in Prince George's County, with over 100 full-time employees, an affiliated Christian school and television broadcasts on 11 stations. In 1995 the church received national attention when President Clinton honored Cherry during a State of the Union address.
God's Voice in the Night
According to Cherry, what ultimately prompted the church's split from the denomination was nothing short of a direct order from God. Cherry has told members of his congregation that at 2 a.m. on June 13, God told him in an audible voice:
"Get out of Zion. Get out now."
"His decision was made out of obedience to God," says his son, John A. Cherry II, the church's assistant pastor.
After Cherry shared the divine message with his congregation, the church voted on July 8 to leave the denomination. Yet according to public church records, as early as June 1998, Cherry and members of the board of trustees had already amended the church's articles of incorporation to change the church's name to From the Heart Church Ministries, while continuing to operate as Full Gospel AME Zion Church. In May 1999, unbeknown to local AME Zion Church officers, Cherry and other trustee members drafted a deed transferring all of the church's property to From the Heart Church Ministries. The deed was filed two days before Cherry and other members of the congregation voted to leave the denomination. The church's decision to break away was not initially disputed by the AME Zion Church leadership. But when the denomination attempted to work out a plan to reclaim the property, Cherry sued.
In an affidavit, Cherry says his church's focus "has never been on acquiring things, but on seeking the lost and doing the will of the Lord." The younger Cherry says that since the church split, it has experienced a dramatic rise in new membership, Bible-study attendance, and people being saved. "We're averaging 200 people a month who are giving their lives to the Lord at worship services," he says.
But Cherry's battle against AME Zion Church leaders has not always been as subtle or as indirect. According to The Washington Post, right before Cherry broke away from the church, he publicly referred to the AME Zion bishops as "purple dogs." He also has accused AME Zion church leaders of putting material riches before God. Scot Moore is a former employee and member of Full Gospel AME Zion whom Cherry attacked from the pulpit by name, accusing him of praying against the church. Moore says such tactics are not uncommon for Cherry.
"He tries to discredit anyone who disagrees with him," says Moore, who left the church in 1996 to become pastor of Judah Temple AME Zion Church in Mitchellville, Md.
From the Heart maintains that it should be able to keep the properties it purchased with its own tithes and offerings. But AME Zion contends that church rules set forth in the Book of Discipline clearly require church property to be held in trust by the denomination.
"You can't just escape trust obligations by resigning from the denomination and walking away from it," says Tom Starnes, who represents the AME Zion Church. Under Maryland law, "the denomination has not established a right to obtain properties that were bought and paid for by From the Heart," says attorney Jack Lipson, who represents the elder Cherry. Lipson argues that the trust clause does not specifically state that if a congregation leaves, assets must revert back to the denomination. A final decision on the property is not expected until this fall, when Maryland's highest court is expected to take up From the Heart's appeal.
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