A member of an East Palo Alto church is suing the pastor and members of his extended family for allegedly trying to sell both the church and a house donated by a former deacon for personal profit.
The house at 871 Weeks St., once occupied by Born Again Christian Center Pastor Andre Harris and his wife Gloria Harris, has already been sold and closed escrow, according to the lawsuit, filed Monday by Arthel Coleman, a former church deacon. The adjacent church, at 891 Weeks St., is still on the market at a listed price of $999,950.
In addition to Harris and his wife, the complaint filed in San Mateo County Superior Court names the pastor's brother Kenneth Harris and his wife Rhona Edgerton-Harris as defendants. The couple are real estate agents at a Century 21 office in East Palo Alto; Kenneth Harris also was the broker of record for the church properties, according to the suit.
Two daughters of Rhona Edgerton-Harris -- April Ingram-Black and Laesheia Turner -- also are named as defendants. They are the nieces of Pastor Harris and members of the Born Again Christian Center's board, along with Kenneth Harris and Gloria Harris, according to the suit. The family members occupy four of board's five seats, the fifth of which is vacant.
The suit alleges that the pastor and his wife intended to sell the church properties "and personally pocket the proceeds of the sale" and that the congregants never approved any such transactions.
Palo Alto-based attorney Stephen Pappas filed the lawsuit for Coleman "on behalf of the church." It alleges breach of fiduciary duty and violation of a state law that dictates the sale of properties by nonprofit religious entities. It also accuses the two couples of converting the proceeds of the sale of 871 Weeks St. for their personal use, possibly to purchase another home.
Pastor Harris could not be reached for comment Wednesday because the phone number listed for the church on its website was disconnected or no longer in service, according to the recorded message. The church doors were locked and no one answered at the door of the home.
Reached by phone at his Century 21 office, Kenneth Harris said, "No comment, no comment" when asked about the sale of the church properties.
According to the suit, the church building and home were donated in 1969 to the church, previously known as Zion Mission Baptist Church, by a former deacon. The home was intended to be used as a residence for the church pastor, who otherwise does not receive a salary.
Harris has served since 1999 as pastor of the church, which changed its name to Born Again Christian Center in 2004. Since its incorporation in 1973, the church has been organized as a religious nonprofit, according to state law.
Included with the suit is a copy of a grant deed that shows Andre and Gloria Harris deeded the house to themselves as a "gift" on April 17, 2014. The deed was notarized by Rhona Edgerton-Harris. The church membership never approved that gift, the suit states.
Although the selling price of the two-bedroom home is not noted in the suit, it was listed at $399,950.
The man who bought the home on June 12 -- Allan Arthur Johnson -- also is named as a defendant in the suit.
On Sunday, July 13, congregants who arrived for service found the church doors locked.
The suit seeks an injunction to prohibit the sale of the church and the transfer of the home sale proceeds to the defendants. It also seeks the removal of the defendants from the church's board of trustees.
A local pastor, who did not want to be named since he had not yet spoken with Pastor Harris, said he had heard from a number of community members concerned that the church is being sold.
The possible involvement of Harris' family members in such a financial transaction would be inappropriate, he said.
"You should always be at arm's length for something like that."
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