RICHMOND -- Internal unrest has been brewing for months within one of the East Bay's historic churches.
But animosity between the head church pastor and a group of associate pastors has boiled over of late, most recently leading to a physical confrontation and a complaint of elder abuse that drew police attention.
During a post-Sunday services meeting of elders at North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church on July 15, a confrontation between the feuding parties resulted in Richmond police responding to the scene.
According to the police report, Otis Glover, 82, was hospitalized with injuries after a 50-year-old male church member "violently pushed" him and "ripped" a microphone from his hands. The 50-year-old, identified in the police report as a church deacon, was allegedly ordered by Pastor Dana Keith Mitchell to secure the mic before Glover got hold of it, with some subsequent contact between the two men resulting in the alleged abuse.
Police say the call to police reporting the incident was made by one Mitchell's associates, and that once on scene Mitchell wanted the associate ministers arrested for trespassing if they would not leave the church. The fracas occurred in the church's worship hall.
Mitchell, who has run the church since he was hired in 2005 and participates in many community-building events in North Richmond, said the elder abuse allegations are without merit but declined to comment on specifics.
The July 15 incident was the latest in a series of calls for police assistance by church leaders in the last 18 months. Police Capt. Mark Gagan said the calls often requested that police resolve disputes involving church leaders who are at odds, and that other involved parties have come to the department to complain.
Mitchell has asked that members who have been exiled from the church be arrested for trespassing, Gagan said.
"We've been aware of issues (at the church) for almost two years," Gagan said. "This is a complex problem and needs a complex solution where both parties sit and meet."
North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church is the oldest African-American church in Richmond. A towering presence on Fred Jackson Way in the tiny community of North Richmond, the church has long been at the center of community life, active in events and community service, as well as the site of memorial services for many of the area's most beloved African-American leaders.
At its height, the congregation had around 3,000 members, a tremendous feat in an isolated community of fewer than 5,000 residents. Today, the congregation is closer to 200 members.
But things soured within the church leadership in recent years, according to some members, as lifelong associate ministers chafed at what they call Mitchell's secretiveness and brusque leadership style.
Rev. James Harris, 67, said he was baptized in the church in 1949 and was a lifelong member until he was "kicked out" last year.
"He has taken over with a dictatorial style," Harris said. "What happened to Otis (Glover) was the perfect example. Mitchell was kicking him out and he said 'take the mic' from him."
In all, Harris said, Mitchell, 55, has unilaterally dispatched eight associate ministers, most with far longer connections to the church than him.
But Mitchell has firm support from other members of his congregation.
Bobby Jones, a 73-year-old who has been a member of the church since 1975, said Mitchell is frugal in his handling of the church's finances, and that is the real impetus of the backlash against him.
"Pastor Mitchell is very careful with the church's affairs, he's not hands-off, and that is a little different from the way things were under previous leadership," Jones said. "The associate ministers are just renegades who want things to be the way they used to be."
The eight banished members have retained an attorney, Point Richmond-based Kathleen A. McKinley, although they have not initiated any litigation against Mitchell or the church. In December, McKinley sent Mitchell a letter admonishing him that in wiping out the associate ministers he had "usurped" powers not granted to him by the church, which is a registered nonprofit corporation.
"Your actions are inconsistent with what appear to be the last valid, or partially valid, set of church bylaws, dating from 1967," McKinley wrote, adding later in the three-page letter that " ... North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church is a corporation, not your private domain to be restructured and operated in accordance with your personal wishes with the collusion of your hand-picked cronies."
Gagan said it was important for police to not "overstep boundaries and take sides" in this delicate matter, adding that the unrest at the church has put police in a tough spot. In the most recent incident, the alleged abuse of Glover, Mitchell wanted police to arrest the banished members of the church for trespassing.
"Arresting people for trespassing is not going to solve this problem," Gagan said. "What happened (July 15) is an example of how frustrating this is and how it can build into violence."
Police mediation skills may be put to the test Aug. 19, when Harris and the other banned ministers plan to hold a meeting at the church after Sunday services. Current church leaders said there would be no meeting Aug. 19.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers